Another academic year advances and looking back over last year I am to some extent pleased from a student success perspective but worried from a directional focus.
It has been a bit of year really, involving Area Review, devolution, and Higher Education Review to mention just a few of the challenges that the College has faced. My message to colleagues has been not to take the eye off student performance while management fill in yet another set of bureaucratic papers and I am so glad we kept to the process because there have been plenty of examples of time wasting exercises.
To bring balance to the issue, there has also been the need to re-examine strategic planning and some of the financial gearing factors that are necessary. Simultaneously there is a danger of letting data wag the tail of curriculum delivery and then the deck of cards really collapses! The visits of the Area Review Assessors and Commissioner were probably the best part of the experience.
The devolution agenda has run in parallel with that of Area Review so you may have envisaged a major convergence of thinking in terms of skills funding approaches and maximising the benefit to the learner. Sadly, despite some real attempts to achieve this by my local council this became mass moving silos of data analysis. In fact you have to question how volumes of data inform strategic deduction. My experience from an Ofsted perspective is that performance data is crucial as long as it is in a format that enables rapid conclusions to be drawn. Interestingly, I was also amazed at the lack of knowledge of skills development from some of the colleagues I met during the process. Equally I also met very well informed individuals who wanted to ensure that money spent bettered the fortunes of learners to maximum impact level.
My Higher Education Review experience was probably the best of all the exercises I was involved in – I don’t know the result yet but there was academic rigour, testing of hypotheses and a genuine interest in how learners progress. It was unlike an Ofsted inspection from a methodology perspective but similar in terms of measuring student feedback and influence upon the curriculum. I wondered at times if the assessors would see the passion and enthusiasm of my staff and was told that this was well evidenced!
It has therefore been a mixed academic year, which has captured the idiosyncrasies of educational life, policies and approaches that are nothing short of daft and others that engage and give you hope for the future. As in previous years I have met so many people young, old, famous who have been at every level of the scale from plain ineffective to absolutely inspirational. The catalyst for undergoing this level of rigorous analysis is undoubtedly examples of poor performance in the sector and therefore the sector is far from blameless. Equally, has enough attention been given to the example of superb performance and why is there one rule for colleges and another for academies, schools and private training providers?
So as I look at the sector I am inspired by the examples of great performance out there in the sector – the recent TES awards that pinpointed top colleges and individuals that make a difference do just that. Well done to all those individuals and their colleges. Equally, the end of year shows that will demonstrate learners who have excelled beyond belief will continue to justify why the sector is so great.
My own college in Weston-super-Mare has brilliant staff and governors, a highly supportive local council, dynamic university partners and a LEP whose Chair and Chief Executive have promoted this key agenda of learner success. The bureaucracy outside this has only got worse and I am sick and tired of ‘the bums on seats’ brigade who are not interested in quality just revenue. I am a Principal but still a teacher at heart so it’s learners and their achievements that interest me.
If I was a great author I would probably be able to capture the essence of FE. It’s about recognising potential, giving hope and confidence and achieving the supposedly unachievable. It’s not about speeches about training where the learner is forgotten or indeed filling in another spreadsheet. Believe it or not it’s not about mergers – how many merged colleges do you know that are outstanding and brilliant (and not just by Ofsted standards)?
In a previous existence I observed a lecturer giving a talk on pastoral care to a group of bricklaying students at 3pm on a Friday! A difficult audience and a difficult time of day to have impact. “Tell me boys,” he said. “We have 5 minutes left - is there a topic you would like to discuss?”
One of the boys said: “Yes sir, let’s talk about sex!” His classmates murmured their support for the topic and I watched the lecturer.
“Of course boys” he said “but wouldn’t it be better to discuss something you know something about”. After a moment, one of them laughed and then the rest followed.
Now you tell me who knows about teaching and learning and the way forward. Balanced finances and top quality learning is the only way forward but you also need the brilliant teachers. To my colleagues across the sector, the future is in the eyes of the students you serve, their future is in your hands. Don’t take your eye off the ball of learning – it’s priceless!
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare