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Open Letter from BFELG to the FE Commissioner Appointment Panel

Robin Landman, BFELG
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Next week the Assessment panel convenes to appoint the new FE Commissioner, a post that has become increasingly important in setting the culture of the FE colleges sector, in my view not always for the better. The composition of the panel gives me cause for optimism about the factors they will take into account in their decision making. The role of the new Commissioner needs to adapt to the reality that the challenges in running a successful FE college are, after 10 years of austerity, now almost insurmountable.

Both FE Commissioners to date were previously principals of tertiary colleges

Firstly, it is interesting to note that both FE Commissioners to date were previously principals of tertiary colleges. Now, it’s clear that successfully leading any college post-austerity is a big challenge, but it could be argued that tertiary colleges present a less complex, and more predictable funding mix than GFEs, the most numerous college type. It may be time to consider candidates from a different college type, in recognition of that fact.

Representation

The second consideration is that of representation. To my knowledge there has only ever been one Black (minority ethnic) person appointed to serve as either a deputy education commissioner or adviser, and this despite the fact that a number of Black FE principals have led their colleges to Outstanding Ofsted grades, either overall or in aspects of the framework. The ethnic mix of FE college students (30% Black and minority ethnic overall) also demands recognition in the ethnic make-up of the FEC’s workforce, appointed in an open and transparent process. This is a situation that needs to be addressed, otherwise it will increasingly be perceived as a sin of commission, rather than omission. With one or two honourable exceptions, few deputy commissioners, nor indeed FE advisers, have led their colleges to outstanding, something I would have thought would have been a prerequisite for consideration.

Interpretation of the role

The third consideration is that of over-reach and the interpretation of the role. I have personal experience of the clear unfairness that now seems the norm in the oversight of colleges as a governor at a college that suffered the ignominy of an ‘inadequate’ grade. The Board had adopted a SAR that bore no relation to reality (I was the lone voice of dissent, noted in the Board minutes) and the college’s finances were also in need of repair. The principal was scapegoated, but no action was taken about Board members who were, in my view, equally culpable.

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At that time the FE Commissioner, quite rightly, did not require the college to get his approval of candidates for the principalship. Now, that is the expectation and as well as being, in my view, a case of administrative over-reach. It is important that the new Commissioner is able to interpret the role in a way that recognises the role of independent governance as specified in the FHE Act.

In conclusion, with FE funding being in a widely acknowledged parlous state, surely that has to be urgently recognised by the Department for Education, the ESFA and other state actors. The first step has already been taken in the more open make-up of the appointment panel, including experienced FE practitioners, and a Black principal. The right appointment will set the tone for a more collegiate relationship between those who run the colleges and strategic decision makers.

Robin Landman OBE CCMI, BFELG Exec Team 

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