'Don’t look at the commissioner as an executioner'

27th April 2018 at 00:00
FE commissioner Richard Atkins says his team is on a mission to help colleges, and it brings unparalleled expertise to institutions that have failed Ofsted inspections or got into financial difficulties

Portrayals of the role of the “FE commissioner” have varied from executioner to white knight – someone who goes into failing colleges either wielding an axe or riding to the rescue. The reality has always been different, but it is now quite radically so.

Since 2013, the FE commissioner has intervened in 75 colleges that have failed Ofsted inspections or reached a financial crisis. My team of former principals, finance directors and curriculum experts has developed unparalleled insight into the reasons for failure.

Skills minister Anne Milton has set me a higher goal to help more colleges be “good” or “outstanding”. Colleges are vital anchor institutions in communities, educating around half of 16- to 18-year-olds, as well as apprentices and adults – and are crucial to enhancing social mobility. High-quality FE matters.

When we visit a college entering intervention, the reasons are usually obvious. Typically, there are weaknesses in governance – the corporation is not able to effectively challenge the principal. The leadership may be performing poorly, and shrink from full scrutiny of performance or improvement plans. Weak leadership teams often produce an unrealistic internal assessment of the college’s position.

In avoiding this risk, the role of the corporation clerk, in supporting effective governance, is important. It is also crucial that there should be multiple senior post-holders – a viceprincipal finance and vice-principal curriculum – for whom the corporation has a role in appointment, and who attend board meetings.

The core elements for success

Beyond the top leadership, there are certain core elements to success. First, there must be a robust data (MIS) system, which can track the performance of each student, class and curriculum area. This must underpin a costed plan – every college must know the cost of delivering a class, and whether it is financially contributing to or subsidising the wider institution. A finance director with a strong commercial background is crucial.

To then reach “good” or “outstanding”, a college must create the right culture. There needs to be a relentless focus on teaching, learning and assessment. Some leadership teams can fall into the trap of being overly “corporate”; they must stay close to the core mission. There must be a positive “can do” atmosphere of achievement. Staff must feel valued, and success must be celebrated.

As someone with experience of governance and leadership in the university and school sectors, as well as FE, I know that being a college principal is a very challenging job. I recently appointed eight principals with records of improving colleges to “outstanding” to my principals’ reference group. This group will support my work and advise on the effective implementation of government policy.

We also now have a stronger set of tools to accelerate improvement. There is a strategic college improvement fund, supporting colleges in learning from the strongest institutions. I have appointed seven National Leaders of Further Education – exceptional principals who will act as mentors. It is also important that we have a coordinated approach to raising standards. I now chair a college improvement board – on which Ofsted, the Institute for Apprenticeships, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the Education and Training Foundation are all represented. Each of these bodies has a crucial but distinct role in raising standards, and we need to join up.

My team is also acting to enable structural change. A significant number of colleges in a relatively weak position are working with my team to review their position and consider mergers. This can reduce costs, and allow reinvestment in learning. It is important that these changes take place while restructuring funds are available from government, and before the introduction of an insolvency regime next year. Each college should be self-critical in considering the case for change.

It is important to conclude by remembering the huge impact of FE teachers. Even in the we akest colleges, my teams find exceptional teachers who are transforming lives.

Richard Atkins is the further education commissioner

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