'The ultimate transparency for college group structures'

Joe Docherty, chief executive of NCG, explains how the story behind the four-month wait for its Ofsted report could have a happy ending for college groups across the country

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Last week saw a very significant development which will have far reaching consequences for the Newcastle College Group (NCG) and for the other further education corporation groups being established as a result of the area review process. NCG was confirmed last week as having grade two "good" provision for our four colleges – Kidderminster College, Newcastle College, Newcastle Sixth Form College and West Lancashire College. This was a finding which was first shared with me at the end of the original inspection in May by the lead inspector and his team.

Of course, securing a "good" Ofsted for our four colleges in a stringent inspection environment is welcome. However, the really significant development for me was notification in writing from the Education Funding Agency (EFA) that they would allow each NCG Division – the four colleges plus private training provider Intraining and charity Rathbone – to submit separate data returns via separate UK Learning Provider Reference Numbers (UKPRNs) for EFA-funded provision from 2016-17 onwards.

This development follows the decision by the SFA last year to allow NCG's constituent parts to submit separate data returns for SFA-funded provision from 2015-16. This is a position now matched by the EFA, and the request to make these changes to both agencies is at the heart of the NCG strategy of empowering local leadership.

Critically, both the SFA and now the EFA have designed in a protocol that enables NCG to move monies between our colleges and providers, which allows one of the key efficiencies of a group structure to be realised – the ability to agglomerate cash flows and "move money round the group" depending on performance and recruitment patterns.

The development – described by a senior Department for Education official as an “obscure nerdy fact of strategic importance” – means that each constituent part of NCG will now feature separately in external performance tables, providing improved transparency. This means a learner in Kidderminster, a parent in Skelmersdale, a business in Newcastle and a young person in Manchester can all see the performance of the part of NCG they engage with. 

Furthermore, given that Ofsted inspects provision based on UKPRN data, I believe allowing multiple UKPRN based data within a single FE corporation provides the necessary hard wiring needed to move to separate Ofsted inspections for each college or training provider within a group – or "campus-based inspections" in Ofsted language.

'Ultimate transparency'

This provides the ultimate transparency for group structures, but for me it is about more than just transparency. The counterpart to transparency is accountability, and by collecting and publishing data at division (or college) level, and with Ofsted committed to moving to inspections at that level, as CEO I can devolve more responsibility to college principals in in the knowledge NCG itself will not itself be inspected.

This is allowing us to move away from a command and control model, with faster responsiveness, better performance and the improved culture which follows. At NCG we are also introducing college boards for each college, committed to ensuring the curriculum design and quality agenda is supervised locally by people best placed to provide the checks and balances good governance demands.  

The reason the inspection of our four colleges was delayed for four months was not because of a bust up or fight with Ofsted, but from the understandable confusion caused by the inclusion in our 2014-15 published data of over 3,000 Rathbone learners - when Rathbone was not in the scope of the inspection.  These learners were disaggregated by the inspectors on the ground, but this could not be replicated by the team carrying out the desk-based review of published data, which combines provision from the different types of provider. With the decision of the EFA, this now can’t happen again. Which is a relief to me and – I have a funny feeling – to Ofsted.

Joe Docherty is the CEO of NCG

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