From ‘good’ to ‘inadequate’: the diary of an FE fixer

11th March 2016 at 00:00
A successful principal shares her experience of taking on a struggling partner college and inspiring change

According to the judgement of Ofsted, Greenwich Community College has been a grade three college since 2001. In 2014, its overall grade dropped to “inadequate”, and it has long been cited as lacking both strategic direction and effective governance. As a result of this, the college was placed in administered status by the FE Commissioner in January 2015. A recommendation was then made that a strong partner college should be identified in order to secure the future of high quality vocational provision in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Following a thorough structure and prospects appraisal, Bromley College – of which I am the principal – was identified as the right partner and the two institutions federated at the beginning of this year. A full merger is scheduled to take place on 1 August.

Taking on Greenwich Community College (GCC) is a rather brave and bold decision by Bromley College’s corporation. Its low success rates place it in the bottom three in the country and it made a £5 million loss last year.

However, it is a risk that must be taken if we are to create a strong and resilient college network in South East London – and this is challenge we are more than ready to face. Here’s my account of the early days of our new relationship.

Day one

I walk into GCC on the first day and, in spite of the obvious troubles, I am encouraged by the warm welcome from staff and students. As well as being open to the idea of change, most staff here seem determined to embrace a new vision for the college. There is an expectation that things will improve and a genuine desire to be part of this. And transformation is certainly on the agenda.

By the end of day one, I have a list of over 100 things that need to change at GCC. These are mainly small tweaks that will make the college more welcoming and accessible. For example, why are students and staff smoking at the entrance to the main building? Why are students wearing hats, hoodies and earphones in lessons and why are large spaces (that could be used for learning areas) so sparsely occupied by staff?

My overwhelming impression is that staff here are in survival mode – focused on their own jobs and yet forgetting some of the basics. High standards and high expectations are missing, which is contributing to the overall picture of a failing college. However, these small things are easy to put right and I begin to realise the very rapid, positive impact we can make here.

Day two

I am starting to hear “It’s not my problem”, “It was management’s’ fault” and “They never told us”. As my team at Bromley will know, blame culture is not something I accept, nor are jobsworths. However, individual accountability is vital and everyone now needs to accept some responsibility for their contribution to moving GCC forward.

To make the biggest possible impact, we need to close the gap between Bromley and GCC in terms of standards and expectations as quickly as possible. And I have no doubt that this can happen – with a proven combination of optimism, team work, experience, resilience and stamina. The Bromley team is taking the lead and encouraging cultural alignment between the two organisations which, in turn, is increasing morale. In fact, closing this stark cultural gap between our two organisations is absolutely the key to ensuring a successful merger.

Days four and five

Something amazing is happening here. It is as if the college, located within a mile of Greenwich Meantime, has slowed down and each hour we are achieving a week of change! I feel like I have already been here a term. The level of teamwork I am seeing is incredible. Every single senior and middle manager from Bromley College are here at GCC, committed to making this partnership work.

As I am driving home, I reflect on how there has been far less resistance to change than I had anticipated. There is a wholesale buy in by staff to create a better brand of FE in Greenwich. My focus on the small things this week has led to an immediate improvement in the college’s operations. However, outcomes for students here simply must improve, so it is now time to tackle the single biggest issue: teaching and learning.

Week two

My team and I arrive on Monday morning ready to implement the improvement strategies that work so well at Bromley. Ultimately, teaching and learning at GCC is not good enough and work needs to be done to ensure that success rates improve. We are able to work to quickly establish an English and maths hub, as well as a teaching skills academy. Lesson preparation is being done, both literacy and maths are being consistently embedded in lessons and posters are put up around the campus.

And then on Tuesday, the inevitable call from Ofsted comes (see box, below). My initial reaction is that of concern; after all, the only possible outcome is inadequate as Ofsted will make its judgement on the past year, not the past week. However, I realise that this is, in fact, a positive opportunity. It will allow us to establish a baseline from which we can implement a rapid improvement plan – with our clear vision, leadership and enthusiasm – to help learners at GCC finally start achieving the successful outcomes that they deserve.

Sam Parrett is principal of Bromley College of Further and Higher Education

GCC: the initial verdict

After visiting Greenwich Community College days into its new federation with Bromley College, inspectors rated it “inadequate” ( The report concludes that the “proportion of learners who complete and achieve their qualifications is below that for similar colleges”, with maths and English provision described as “inadequate”. It adds that “too few learners progress to further learning within the college or gain employment”. However the report acknowledges that the leadership team at Bromley “bring a wealth of experience and have a very good track record of bringing about improvements”.

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