Tony Allen, CEO, AAS Ltd

It seems that hardly a week goes by when we hear of another crisis of leadership in the FE sector, and by that I am not just talking about FE Colleges, but the sector in its broadest sense.

In recent weeks there have been high-profile departures of hitherto well respected Principals in six colleges. In the private sector in the last year we have seen the demise of large training providers, such as LearnDirect, Talent Training and 3aaa.

On a weekly basis we read that Ofsted has rated an independent training provider (ITP) as inadequate, so leading effectively to their demise.

Whilst in the past, there have always been spectacular falls from grace, it has never been as bad as it is now. So what is going on?  

The Roman writer, Publilius Syrus sums up for me the problem in the FE sector when he said: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”.

I think it is fair to say that the waters surrounding the sector at the moment are anything but calm. Funding cuts, sector reform, political uncertainty, are all having a negative impact, and pilling the pressure on our leaders and those who monitor them.

Now, I wish to state clearly that I believe that we have some very high quality leaders in both colleges and ITPs. I have, and continue to work with, some outstanding people, who I would put alongside the best leaders in any sector the country,

However, why, in an increasing number of cases, are leaders failing to cope with the additional pressures that are being experienced by the sector? I believe that there are a number of reasons, some temporary, but others that lay at the foundations of the way that the sector manages and governs itself.

One of the most important of these is the relationship between leadership and governance. This is a subject worthy of many more words than I am allowed here, but suffice to say we have a system, not only in FE Colleges, but in some ITPs too, where that relationship is just not robust enough, and frankly does not work.

This can range from, non-existent in some ITPs, where there is no independent chair or board to challenge what is going on, or in some colleges, where the relationship between Principal, Chair and Clerk is too cosy.

I believe that the time has come for there be a review as to how that relationship between governance and leadership operates across the sector. It is evident, that some governing bodies are failing in their responsibility to hold college leaders to account.

I believe that the governance system that we have in colleges has always been questionable, but that its failings have been hidden during times when the financial pressures were less. Increasing those pressures, has flushed-out fundamental flaws in the system of governance.

Asking governors who are at best amateurs when it comes to an in-depth knowledge of FE, to challenge professional leaders in how they run their institution, has never been in my view appropriate, and certainly now is proving to be completely ineffective.

We need a better way of looking at how governance takes place in colleges.

I hope that the new ‘National Leaders of Governance’ initiative launched recently by the Skills Minister, will have some effect.

In addition to providing peer support, I hope that the six individuals concerned will take the opportunity to take a more radical look at what is needed to stop the failures in governance that occur all too often.

As we all know, the problem is not just a college one. Poor quality, financial mis-management, and sometimes just pure ignorance, are a feature of the private training provider world too, as is evidenced by some recent high profile cases.

I often wonder how many ITPs on the apprenticeship register have little or no independent challenge in the way that they are run?

From my experience there will be hundreds of them! These institutions receive public money. They should also receive a far greater level of scrutiny.

What is the answer? Not an easy one, that is a fact, otherwise we would have adopted it! The solution is multi-faceted. Greater regulation, better leadership training and development, more rigorous criteria before senior leaders (including Chairs) are appointed, are all part of what needs to happen.

However, I also think that it is time for the government to do more and take a much bigger role in monitoring and managing what happens. I have said before that past actions to reduce the number of ESFA staff who contract manage colleges and ITPs was a serious error, and certainly in recent times, the fact that ESFA have had little or no idea of what might be happening in a college or ITP until it is too late, is a pretty damning reflection on them.

What other organisation would leave contracts, sometime worth millions of pounds, unmonitored and unmanaged?

You might wonder why I am so exercised by this. It is simple.

None of us should underestimate the impact on the image of the sector that every single report of a failing college, or ITP has. It impacts negatively on learners, employers, the local community, and creates, bit by bit, an image of a sector in crisis.

The Association of Colleges has complained much (possibly too much!) recently about the lack of funding for FE Colleges, and highlighted the disparity between funding rates for schools and colleges. 

On the face of it, a well made case, powerfully put.

However, it is completely undermined by high profile cases of college’s mismanaging their funds, or being in serious financial trouble.

A former senior civil service colleague of mine put it simply: “Why would we give them more money, when they can’t manage what they already have?”

An unfair generalisation? Definitely!

However, I believe that if we are to restore some of the damage that has been done to the sector recently, then we must ensure that action is taken to raise the quality of leadership and governance across the whole sector.

We need to stop these high-profile instances of failure being a constant distraction from all of the fantastic outcomes that the sector delivers.  

Tony Allen, CEO, AAS Ltd.

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