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Music plays from a piano in the reception of Epping Forest College as learners enter the building to begin their day. The principal welcomes them as she does each morning and there is a sense of purpose and calm. As often is the case, things have not always been so straight forward as the college has come a long way in a very short space of time since the Principal Saboohi Famili was appointment just six months ago.

Her appointment came following two ‘requires improvement’ verdicts given from government inspectorate Ofsted and as she took up her post, it was deemed as underperforming and ‘inadequate’. As the government's’ FE Commissioner stepped in to begin reviewing the improvements that would need to take place, she implemented a change programme with her teams to begin improving the way they were working for the better.

With a lengthy self-assessment report that was deemed unrealistic in its grade and lacking in sufficient detail to evidence the work they were doing for their learners, an honest and open discussion proceeded. It was the catalyst for the start of their journey, firstly with governors as part of the new principal’s appointment and then with staff during their first team meetings. The message was an honest one: the standard to which they judged themselves in their report was not accurate.

A staff consultation followed entitled, ‘Today, Tomorrow, Together’ involving all stakeholders at the college. It defined 5 key business improvement working groups where the college needed to focus its energy. Each working group linked to their updated self-assessment report and Ofsted judgements and were given the opportunity to contribute across all areas. Saboohi explains, “ I didn't prescribe to them how to work but encouraged them to contribute to the groups that they had passion for and an interest in so maximising the impact of their work.”

The speed at which change was to take place left some people behind and as the resulting restructure and change programme that followed begun to bear fruit very quickly, the size of the task ahead of them became clearer.

A strong emphasis on evidence based reporting has led to a shift in the way data is used across the organisation. Data is now reviewed monthly and not quarterly or even yearly as so often is the case. The first two weeks of each month are spent with delivery teams and their learning leaders to review data so that it is always accurate. This is then reviewed with governors on the third week of each month and then with the FE Commissioner every fourth week. Teaching Learning and Assessment remains a core component of each of the 5 areas but also exists in its own right as the fifth business improvement working group.

This transparent yet autonomous approach taken by staff has led to a startling shift in the way they self-manage issues as they arise. The acronym PRIDE rings through all their decision making as individuals are actively encouraged to take action without always seeking senior approval so long as they uphold these values. The change has fostered a more trusting environment and equal respect among the teams. Their integrity to do the right thing in the best interests of the learner is core to all of their actions.

As part of the restructure which begun soon after, a matrix reporting system was initiated. The differences are now subtle but significant. All members of the senior executive team now have a teaching workload and all partly manage a curriculum area together with their other duties which are linked to cross cutting themes in the Ofsted inspection criteria. As a result of the restructure the senior team has also halved in size with their offices now turned into meeting rooms. Remote working is actively encouraged and they now often share a room which encourages greater transparency and collaboration. Even the principal doesn’t have an office and chooses to work in the reception area where she is available to field questions and support her teams and learners more readily.

The senior team now ‘huddle’ each morning for fifteen minutes standing in full view of reception visitors in the foyer as they define their focus and activity for the day and more importantly, how they can support each other that day. A clear step toward a more shared approach to leadership than previously experienced, where meetings were abundant but poorly attended and little in the way of outcomes achieved. Meetings now are all 55 minutes in length with agenda items and their actions simply reviewed. Rather than feedback typically offered as good and bad, it is humorously entitled FAB and DRAB. This instantaneous feedback is actioned in a series of post it notes which are followed through daily. It is a theme echoed through the student voice and staff magazines published periodically to consistently channel a positive and proactive message throughout the organisation.

Chair of Governors, Councillor Gagan Mohindra, explains where the college is now following recent visits from Ofsted in April, “ Moral is now high at the college and we know where we are going. The board have become a ‘critical friend’ to the principal and her senior team and offer them the challenge to serve their learners and deliver on the strategic objectives.”

The goal for the college is simple: to be ‘outstanding’ by 2020.

Together with the governors the principal has set a challenging agenda for her teams and for herself in their strategy: Vision 2020. Whilst it address key areas where the college intends to grow and improve, accountability is the key with clear objectives that are built around the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed). The structure of which fits the matrix reporting now second nature to all at the college and forms the basis on which all improvements are measured and achieved. Outcome driven and purely evidence based, the organisation is not prescriptive over how results are achieved and so offers greater flexibility and autonomy to its staff in achieving these results.

The learner voice plays centre stage in this new agenda and the organisations’ future planning. Student ambassador Jake Forecast proclaims, “The communication within the college has improved greatly by the shift in team management, more issues that are put across by students are dealt with more efficiently and effectively.” Students also take centre stage in running the social media presence across the college with its profile consistently topping the tables in recent EDURANK surveys. This ‘customer focused’ ethos used to drive improvements to whom the organisation serves comes as a breath of fresh air in these turbulent times.

Staff development is equally recognised to be key in this new drive toward excellence. Performance management has taken on a more responsive identity with quarterly reviews rather than those conducted six monthly or even yearly. KPIs are measured against five key areas, three of which are based on professional criteria together with two personal. Reflection plays a core component in how individuals are moving toward their goals and the effectiveness of this process. These are early days but this cycle hopes to provide a pro-active way to engage, and encourage ownership of the process.

Epping Forest is a London college with a Essex postcode and as such, has specific challenges indicative of its location and the broad range of city learners that it caters for. This diversity requires sensitivity in approach and resilience in the way it delivers its mission. As such, there is a strong culture of kindness evident in the walls of the corridors and a focus on the wellness of its students and staff with ‘free hugs friday’ and free fruit handed out weekly to reinforce this message.

A brave move has been taken by all at the college to carve a lasting legacy in the way they work and the community their serve. Time will be the true test in revealing the effectiveness in this refreshing and far more commercial approach this college is embarking on. What is clear though is a refreshing honestly in the way the principal talks about the work her teams are doing and a complete lack of ego in her motives to support a college which may well have been consumed by a much larger one if not for the results they have seen so far. Staff are encouraged to think for themselves and act on their professional judgement and experience. Their leader simply trusts them to act in the best interests of those they serve.

“Giving choice to people is one of my key principles”, says Saboohi on her approach as a leader. “From students exercising their individual liberties by choosing what music will play in the foyer at lunch time to staff deciding to stay or leave the organisation. To me the greatest asset a human being has is choice and I choose to live my life by ensuring I am MAD (making a difference). When I was younger I wanted to change the world! Now I settle by making some simple differences and am happy to be in a position to do so.”

About the principal - Saboohi Famili

Leading in these challenging times is a game of endurance. The principal, a keen climber, is not one to let the grass grow under her feet. Impatient but determined in equal measure, she draws inspiration and lessons in leadership from her time mountaineering. “Feeling uncomfortable sometimes is a good thing, even if you are hanging from a cliff face by your fingernails or dealing with high altitude sickness. They offer perspective and more importantly, lessons which I use every day in my work.”

Tim Evans, Executive and Team Coach, Lean 4 Learning, working in behavioural change, personal development and organisational effectiveness.

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