'The worst years of my life'

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Principal calls for better support for failing colleges. Joe Clancy reports

A principal who rescued a college after it failed an inspection has called for urgent changes in the process triggered by an unsatisfactory rating.

Paul Harvey has urged Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, to introduce a more supportive post-inspection regime for the 10 per cent of colleges failed by the Office for Standards in Education.

For two years following its failure in the May 20002 inspection, Mr Harvey's college was visited once a term by an Ofsted team to check for progress.

"Those were the worst two years of my life," said Mr Harvey, principal of Hertford regional college in Ware, Hertfordshire.

What he needed, he said, was advice, guidance and support. But all he received was more inspection, more monitoring, and more critical judgements.

"We had six moderation visits from Ofsted, and I don't think they were totally helpful. We need a different sort of advice rather than just measuring and judging.

"The greatest pressure on a principal is time. Within two years we are expected to achieve significant change. Knowing that the clock is ticking is the hardest part."

He said that all his time during those two years was taken up with dealing with Ofsted, rather than developing the college.

"During those years, you have to become totally inward-focused. As a result, you suffer in the big-picture sense," he said.

Mr Harvey wrote to the Education Secretary to suggest improvements to the process, and was subsequently invited to discuss his proposals with the ministry.

He added: "One problem is finding someone to talk to. What you need is to get useful advice from someone in the same position who knows what it is like. Grade one principals are very nice but they often have no experience of managing failure.

"That is why we formed the Soho Group of principals who were rated inadequate at around the same time. We were going to call ourselves The Inadequates, but decided instead to name ourselves after where we held our meetings, in a basement in Soho.

"It was restricted to people who were really inadequate - a minimum of three grade fours. About eight to 10 of us met regularly and shared ideas about what we were doing in our recovery process."

Mr Harvey also said his leadership style had had to change since leaving his previous post as principal of North Tyneside college, in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.

"I regard myself as a consultative, supportive leader, but the only way I managed to turn this college around was by being a bastard," he said. "I have been far more ruthless here than I ever imagined I would be. Fifty staff have left in the past two years, 28 for inspection-related reasons.

But we haven't had to sack anyone or paid anyone to go."

Appropriately, it was April Fool's Day in 2002 when he swapped the leadership of a college in a deprived area of the North-east for a college in the affluent Home Counties. A mere seven weeks after he took up his new post, inspectors moved in and a college that had passed two previous inspections with flying colours was graded inadequate.

"I believed I was coming to a good college," he said. "The college was awarded a grade one in its last inspection by the Further Education Funding Council."

As the inspection week progressed, he noticed that the senior managers nominated to liaise with Ofsted were "going greyer by the day".

Mr Harvey said: "The college failed comprehensively. It failed because it had become complacent, believing that Ofsted would regard it in the same way as the FEFC. The difference was that Ofsted focuses on the quality of teaching and learning, rather than management systems."

"The local learning and skills council made sure I got as much financial support as possible. But they didn't really have the skills and experience needed to support colleges in our position.

"In the old days of FEFC inspections, every college had its own HMI (Her Majesty's inspector) to call on to come into the college and observe staff.

He had professional, independent knowledge and was able to offer advice.

"We ended up spending large amounts of money on support, advice and guidance. Some of it was good and some not. It worries me how much the sector is spending on advice when there is no guarantee that the advice will be good."

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