‘The pressure has never been greater’

31st August 2018 at 00:00
As he steps down as a college principal, new Association of Colleges president Steve Frampton tells Julia Belgutay that leaders working in FE have more challenges to cope with than ever

TODAY is a significant day for Steve Frampton. It’s the day he leaves the job he loves. It marks his retirement as principal of Portsmouth College, bringing to an end 13 years in charge.

“I have always said I had the best job in Portsmouth, maybe in the country,” he says. “I’ll miss it enormously. It has been such a privilege. It has been bloody hard work, but the staff here are extraordinary and it has been so rewarding.”

Frampton will have no opportunity to put his feet up, though. This summer, he was appointed president of the Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents 241 colleges across England – a job that will see him stand up for fellow principals in front of government and other stakeholders.

And there’s plenty for colleges to deal with at the moment: in addition to recent disappointments over pay, T levels are due to be introduced in 2020; apprenticeship starts are down since the introduction of the levy; and funding pressures are as acute as ever before.

“I think the challenges have never been greater,” says Frampton. “The decline in funding, the level of change and the pressure has never been greater. I see more of my principal colleagues under pressure than I have ever seen.”

And this appears to be borne out by the annual AoC survey of college leaders, in partnership with Tes. Leaders were asked to name their three biggest concerns. The restrictiveness of funding rules is the largest area of concern, alongside the level of staff pay (see box, below). Other worries included a lack of capital funding and the pressures created by the government’s GCSE resit policy.

“I am surprised by the concerns over funding rules not being even higher. There are not just tight restrictions, there is an overall lack of core funding,” says Frampton.

National funding rates have been frozen since 2014, at £4,000 for 16- and 17-year-olds, and £3,300 for 18-year-olds. Non-apprenticeship college adult education funding dropped by 45 per cent, from £1,585 million in 2009-10 to £889 million in 2016-17. College capital expenditure has also reached a 20-year low.

Colleges are even finding it difficult to access the funding that supposedly has been made available. In 2016, rules were brought in which restricted the types of students, courses and activity that could be funded. Since then tens of millions of pounds in the adult education budget are believed to have gone unspent.

Linked to funding is the issue of staff pay. The pay gap between teachers in schools and colleges currently stands at £7,000 a year. This week saw the University and College Union embark on a strike ballot over the issue (see page 50). The unions representing FE staff have called for a 5 per cent pay rise for 2018-19, but the AoC has refused to commit to a rise without additional funding from the Department for Education.

“This is senior leaders wanting to pay staff, but not having the resources to do it,” Frampton explains. “We realise how hard staff work.”

Also linked are the pressures created by GCSE resits and the recruitment and retention of staff – two other areas of significant concern for leaders, according to the AoC/Tes survey. “Core funding is what we need to get some movement on, otherwise there will be real challenges around some of these other issues,” says Frampton.

Stuart Rimmer, principal of East Coast College, agrees that funding is key to many of the other issues raised by leaders: “The lack of funding keeping track with inflation over a long period has now squeezed the sector and made most colleges very fragile.

“This is my highest concern. This leads to restrictions in being able to award decent wage increases, less staff focused on delivering the best quality teaching and care and operating with higher workloads; and reduced capital spending. Unlocking funding to reasonable, and comparable levels is the key to unlocking most of the issues colleges face today.”

A DfE spokesperson says the FE sector is “a hugely important part of our education system, even more so as we roll out our new T levels.

“We have protected the base rate of funding for all 16- to 19-year-old students until 2020 and alongside this are providing an additional £20 million over the next two years to prepare for the introduction of T levels.”

The department is also spending a total of £50 million to improve maths teaching, £4.5 million a year for professional development for English and maths teachers and £15 million to help underperforming colleges, the spokesperson adds.

Nonetheless, the financial pressures on colleges are severe. In May, Tes analysis revealed that one in eight colleges was in such poor financial health that it was in danger of not being able to pay its bills.

Taking on the role of AoC president at this time is “challenging and interesting”, says Frampton, with some understatement. “But the positive thing for me is that I don’t remember a period when so many people were on the same page on these issues.

“If you take Ofsted, for example – these issues in our sector are really important issues for them as well. If you speak to the Department for Education, they are also cognisant of this. There is a lot of consensus around. The challenge is that we have to make sure we have a collective voice on that.”

Having been a sixth-form principal, rather than the leader of a general further education college, is no disadvantage in his new post, Frampton insists.

“There are differences, but not as many as you would expect. We are all about people, people, people.”

Frampton’s interest in leadership emerged at school when he became involved with student politics. He also started up his own business, selling tickets to local events.

“I was an entrepreneur, running my own business. I learned a lot of employability skills, through that and through sports.”

His exam results, however, were “not very impressive”, he says. His attitude changed when he came to university, he explains. “I had a tutor who looked after me. I was working then. I realised I loved learning so I took it seriously.”

Following his PGCE qualification, he took his first teaching job at what was the Price’s College – a sixth-form college that merged to create Fareham College. He later became a chief examiner and part-time inspector before becoming a principal.

And, as much as he adores the job, continuing it alongside representing the sector was not an option for Frampton.

“I would not like to do a day job and do this at the same time. I want to visit the colleges, and speak to staff and students. I want to go to colleges and listen more.”

Despite all the challenges he and the sector as a whole face, Frampton is optimistic: “When the pressure is extreme, people have ideas. I think this is a very important time for our sector, but I am also incredibly optimistic. If you are not, how can you expect your staff and your community to be?”

@JBelgutay

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