FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins

FE News chat with Richard Atkins, FE Commissioner, to unpack his 2018/19 annual report. We discuss timings on the report, due to the election and purdah the report has come out later than Richard would have hoped, as the original aim was to release the report during the 2019 AoC Annual conference, but this was in the middle of the run up to the general election.

Richard then unpacks each of the sections of the report, from Formal Interventions, Diagnostic Assessments, Structural reviews, Quality Improvement, the strategic college improvement fund (SCIF), the number of visits by the FE Commissioner team.

We also discuss lessons learned, particularly from Hadlow and how the sector can learn and move forward. Please check out the full and detailed podcast below, we have also transcribed the interview as Richard goes into a lot of detail about the report and we thought this would be really helpful for the sector.

Richard Atkins unpacks the Annual report of the Further Education Commissioner: 1 August 2018 to 31 July 2019

It's just been published, and I'm sure people are thinking that I've got a bit of a nerve when I go round criticizing colleges for not publishing their governor board minutes on websites, or their whistleblowing policies quickly enough. People are saying why doesn't the FE Commissioner's annual report get published more quickly?

But we've really been caught up in the change of ministers that took place in the autumn, followed, of course, by the purdah and the general election. And they just delayed things, and ideally we would have had it available at the AOC annual conference in November, as we usually do. But it's out this week, I'm delighted to say, and very important I think, that I and my team are accountable to the sector. I am obviously accountable to the ministers I work to, and I have a Principals reference group, of course, drawn from the sector of experienced principals as well. But it's very important I report annually on what we've been up to.

I'm doing so I think in a more positive atmosphere for the sector than since I joined and took up this role in 2016. It just seems to me that we have seen the increase in funding last summer. We could always do with more, but I guess a very positive step.

I think the #LoveOurColleges and #RaiseTheRate campaigns did a really good job there, along with lots of other campaigns to raise the profile of colleges.

We've got a new team of ministers. We've got a secretary of state, as you'd see with a deep personal commitment, I know, to wanting to improve and develop further education and skills. We've got Michelle Dolin as a minister and I work, of course, with Lord Agnew. And I have to tell you that their interest in, and determination to improve further education is as great as I've seen from any ministers for many, many years.

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I think the report is being published at a more optimistic time. Now, I appreciate that when things do turn the corner, it takes a while for that to feed into every corner of every college.

FE Commissioner Intervention

I guess the formal interventions is the most difficult part of our work, and the thing we're best known for, and the thing I try and spend most of my time trying to put into perspective. On the 31st July, twenty nineteen there were twenty-three colleges in intervention with the FE commissioner out of 240 incorporated colleges. Now that's too many, but on the other hand, it just tells you just how many colleges are well-run, and how many good or outstanding. I was really delighted to see the recent Ofsted annual report, with 82 percent of colleges now rated good or outstanding with them, I think this is all signs that things are going in the right direction. Nonetheless, there were five more colleges entered intervention in 18/19 compared with the previous year, 17/18. But on the other hand, 17 colleges came out of intervention. Some through merger, obviously, but others actually through improvement and consolidation and strenuous efforts by governors and leaders to improve the college. Of the ones that entered intervention last year, 12 of them were for financial reasons, and none were for getting an Ofsted inadequate Grade during that year.

That tells me that the financial pressures on colleges are considerable, and have been considerable for quite some time. It also tells me, and my team and I feel this strongly, that the reasons so many colleges are good or outstanding is down to the quality of the governance and leadership. In my experience you find excellent staff in every college, you find great teachers, great professional services, support staff in all colleges. The difference between a really good college and one that is struggling will almost inevitably be around governance and leadership. That's why each of these interventions we do can be difficult because the intervention is always around governance and leadership.

What we've got to do as a sector is to ensure that governance and leadership is of a consistently high standard across all of colleges. And I realize that we're asking a lot because finance has been tight, funding is complex, it's a sector being asked to do a lot by government. But then I look around and see, you know, over 80 percent of colleges are doing outstanding, and some of our leaders are truly exceptional. I mean, they are absolutely brilliant educational leaders and the sector needs to keep celebrating that.

FE Commissioner Diagnostic Assessment

Since the area reviews ended in 2017, they've become the greatest element of our work as a team of 15 or 16 retired principals, former principals and finance specialists. That's because we were very keen to try and get involved in colleges and give them advice and support earlier, and try and prevent problems becoming an out and out crisis.

By the end of 18/19 we carried out 33 Diagnostic assessments. That number now is closer to 50, across a range of colleges.

The reasons colleges have a diagnostic assessment if either in early intervention with the ESFA on financial grounds, or they're a Grade 3 overall effectiveness from an Ofsted inspection, we jointly identify the colleges that might benefit from a diagnostic assessment with the ESFA at our monthly meetings.

We provide private, confidential and published reports to the governors and the leadership of each college. I believe they have the advantage of a two days consultation from two very experienced practitioners in FE, at no cost to themselves and no publication or unhelpful publicity.

The feedback we get in the overwhelming majority of cases has been very positive about this work. And indeed, we've had a small number of colleges now volunteer and come forward, particularly colleges with principals appointed, say, within 18 months, 12-18 months, newish principals.

Sometimes it's the principal, sometimes it's the governors or both saying we feel we've now got a bit of a sense of where the college needs to be, but we think we'd benefit from a two day assessment from your team, and feedback to see whether we're on the right lines, whether there's anything we're missing, benchmarking us against the rest of the sector. So, I'm very, very keen on diagnostic assessments, I think they've been one of the most helpful early intervention tools that we've developed. And I'm pleased to say, we're very close to getting to our 50th diagnostic assessment. The other thing that needs saying is very, very few of those diagnostic assessments get escalated to full intervention, very few indeed.

In fact, in 2018/19, the number that were escalating was only one. It was only one in 18/19 that was escalated, I think since then, I think we've had two further ones. So, this is a very small percentage. So, I would urge colleges not to be concerned or worried about the FE commissioner team visiting for a diagnostic assessment, but to treat them as a confidential opportunity to have free consultancy from experienced practitioners from the sector.

FE Commissioner Structural Reviews

What are structural reviews?

Now that the restructuring fund has ended, and the area reviews are behind us, we now embark on structural reviews when a college's sustainability is in question.

Either because the ESFA and ourselves have judged it to be so, because of financial weakness, or because the college itself, possibly under new leadership or governors, not always, comes forward and says: "Actually, we don't think this college is independently, financially sustainable, but we want the provision to continue here, we want the brand of the college to remain, we want the learners here to continue to get a good experience, but we think they get a better experience with something that is larger, more financially resilient, more able to invest, with strong leadership, than us continuing to fight a battle with limited resources".

So, we now do more than one type of activity:

Structural Prospects Appraisals (SPA)

We do Structural Prospects Appraisals, which, of course, have been around most of this decade, really. That's where an individual college has its options considered, looking at a range of colleges in the area. Colleges don't close generally, that's a misnomer. What happens is the provision is linked to, brought under the governance and leadership of something bigger.

So, with a SPA, we will normally draw a geographical circle around the college, could be twenty miles in an urban area. It might be 50 miles in a more rural area. And we'll go and talk to the colleges in that part of the world particularly we'll concentrate on the ones that are Grade 2 Ofsted, and financially good or better. And we'll talk to them about whether they have the capacity, and the ambition to merge with a given college. If they do, then we ask them to provide full written submissions.

We work with the governors and the principal of the college for which we're running the SPA. And then we reach a decision at the end of that process as to which college to go with. Usually, not always, usually after a sort of beauty parade type of event where the short-listed colleges make a presentation to my team, and to the governors, and to the ESFA. We're doing that on a regular basis really, since the area reviews. Last year we did nine SPAs.

Local Provision Reviews

We also started doing Local Provision Reviews, we did two of those. That's where a college becomes financially unsustainable, and we don't think the provision can continue in its present form. We tend to look, in one of those at the FE and sixth form colleges, and academized sixth form colleges in the area.

So, we look at all the post 16 institutions, to see what solution there should be. Then we work with the ESFA, we then cost different options, which could be closing a college and merging with another in an urban area, could be bringing together two or three colleges into a new college, a range of options. We started two of those last year, we've currently got about four of those on the go.

So structural change and providing an educational perspective on that in particular is an important part of what we do.

FE Commissioner Quality Improvement

I've always felt that quality improvement was an important part of this FE commissioner role, and that's why an experienced practitioner has been appointed to the job on both occasions. Fairly early on in my time in the role I wanted to use the sector's expertise to help improve colleges.

It's not to say there aren't times when bringing in external specialists isn't required, but I think many, many of the problems in the sector can be solved from within the sector.

I see that regularly, because I see so many colleges that are well-run, and sometimes they're not that far away from colleges are not very well run.

So, I was very, very pleased when we agreed to create the National Leaders of FE and the National Leaders of Governance roles. We had eleven last year, eleven and NLFEs and nine NLGs, and over 40 colleges were supported by them. So, they're quite busy.

Increasingly when we do a diagnostic assessment, or an intervention, but particularly diagnostic assessment, we'll recommend that the college, the chair, might work with an NLG, or the principal or members of his team or her team might work with the team from an NLFE college. We don't see NLFE as being about individual, charismatic, egotistical leaders, we see it much more about really well-run colleges and teams. So, it isn't always the NLFE themselves that provides the support and advice, the mentoring and sharing. Sometimes it can be different members of the college's leadership.

But they tell me, the NLFEs and NLGs, how much they and their college get out of this. Everywhere they go, they learn. So, it's not a question of go to a college and doing it to them. It's much more one of mutual respect and mutual sharing. But what we're trying to do with more and more share best practice around the sector.

A really good example is costed curriculum plans, which I've always banged on about since I started, it's absolutely essential that every college has a robust costed curriculum plan for the year ahead and that they devise that, this time of year really, for the February to April for the year ahead.

Colleges that are weak do not have those robust costed curriculum plans generally. That's been one of the reasons why they've gone into financial difficulty. So, I'm very keen to pair up colleges like that with colleges who are really good at it.

We've got some excellent colleges developing this work, and we've been increasingly trying to pair them up and we've had very, very positive feedback about that.

Really important to remember in this sector, a lot of governors, and indeed college leaders, especially governors, they won't know governors from another college.

A lot of colleges are some distance apart, it's a relatively small sector. There are only a few more colleges now than there are universities. It's not like the school sector where in a town you can have lots of schools, and you may well know other school governors. So, one of the benefits of this work is also to bring governors together, visits to each other's colleges to see how things work. I found that really has a positive impact. So, it's the most interesting and enjoyable part of our work and one that I'm really pleased that the department agreed in the autumn then with the new ministers to fund the growth in those teams. We've just recruited an increased number of NLFEs and NLGs. And we are going to be busy, because all our work tells us that there is a need for this sharing of expertise to go on, so I really welcome that.

The Strategic College Improvement Fund (SCIF)

I was really pleased when that was introduced in 18/19 for the first time. It was a £15 million fund, it appears modest, but 80 colleges benefited from it, took part in the projects. It's where we paired up a college which had a challenge in a particular area.

Could be that they were a good college, but they got a grade 3 from Ofsted for a particular area that needed development, or it could be that the college itself was overall effectiveness Grade 3 or 4. And we linked them up with a college that was better at that particular aspect. The amounts of money were not enormous, but it's amazing what a difference, say two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, which is typically the amount money, can make to a college.

I always remember when I was doing the budget of the two colleges I was principal of, 90, 95, 97 percent of your budget for the following year, is already tied up. You've got to pay the staff, run the buildings, etc. If you can suddenly get £200-250,000 in year that was never in your budget, could really oil the wheels to some interesting development work.

The SCIF projects work really well. My team go out and assess the bids at the colleges beforehand, and as I say, 80 colleges have benefited. We have a very, very positive feedback from the sector generally, from AOC, from different colleges. I've been very pleased, and I'm delighted that we're going to have a SCIF2 now in 20/21 starting in April. Some tweaking to the criteria and so on, but with the same principle of bringing colleges together to share best practice and work together. I see that as really, really good news.

Increase in the overall number of visits: What does that mean to your's and your team's workload?

It's been a very significant increase, I mean, obviously when the role was developed back in 2013 with my predecessor David Collins, then the ambition was to do six or seven interventions a year, and that would be the work. The expanded role we've developed, as I've said earlier is it a lot, lot more in the way of support and early diagnosis as well as it's going to visit colleges that are already in crisis.

And of course, we've been supporting the SCIF bids, and some of the other improvement activity. So, the workload of the team has increased significantly. The team size hasn't increased, we reduced the team from about 23, 24 at the end of area review to 16, and we stayed at that number really. We've got the same number of deputies and advisors, we've increased the number of finance advisors slightly this year that we're in now, 19/20, I just recruited three more. Every year two or three of our team move on. I daren't use the word retire, but they sort of move on to other things and we bring in new blood, really. And I try and recruit direct from the sector, either people straight out of colleges, or very recently retired, or people who are actively engaged in college on a day to day basis, I'm very keen that the team is current and up to date. We've been doing that, you know, since I joined nearly four years ago.

We are quite busy now, but actually we're all still part time, we're all still paid a day rate, I'm still a ministerial appointment. I believe we provide a range of professional and technical expertise to the ESFA and to the Department for Education, that I hope they find helpful to the improvement and development of the sector.

This is the FE Commissioner's report, but it's really about the team of 16

Very much, it has something to do with the way the media reports our work really, and the way government officially report some of what we do. This is very much a team of 16. It's a team of peers, I've got former principals like me, and finance specialists who are all experts in the sector. We're all part time, we're all paid a day rate. I don't line manage anybody as such, but we work well together. Because of the way that it's portrayed as being one person doing a lot of this, than actually the bulk of the work done by the team. A lot of this work I've talked about diagnostic assessments, some of the interventions, the SCIF, a lot of that's been done by colleagues in the team. Different people have led on different initiatives. I'm really, really pleased with and proud of the team I work with. The team stayed at about 16 since the end of area review. We reduced you from about 23. Every year two or three move on. We recruit two or three more. We always try and recruit from the sector, people who are currently involved.

I believe that the sort of people who can go into a college for two days, having digested information, obviously, before they go and are credible to conduct an independent consultancy assessment and to give feedback to the college. And they've been through a selection process and the DfE with me and colleagues before they joined the team. And I've got a huge amount of confidence in them. And I felt for many years that as the ESFA and Ofsted and the department don't really engage former principals of GFE colleges. It's really important to have a group of people with that level of experience sharing it within the sector. And I think this has been a really ideal way of doing that. And I've enjoyed the work very much. And I'm typical of a new generation, really, of people whose children have grown up moved away from home, have a new level of independence, thought they were going to retire at the traditional ages. You know, in the old days, you retired at 60ish if you were a principal. But I've enjoyed very much working in my 60s doing this work. And I think my colleagues on the team tell me that that they enjoy it as well. And I hope that, you know, in many individual cases, I hope we're adding some value and bringing some benefit.

Hadlow College has had a lot of attention over the circumstances there. What can we learn? How can we move forward?

It's a really distressing case and a very high profile one, wasn't it, for the sector?

I've certainly been on record as saying that if you going to have education administration and an insolvency act, then this was the case to use it, because not only had the college completely ran out of money, the behaviours and the lack of oversight were of a very serious nature.

I know there are ongoing investigations to this day, about all that happened. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned:

Structurally, merger is the answer

I think what one clearly was the structural situation between the two colleges, between Hadlow and West Kent and Ashford. There's no doubt that my experience on two or three occasions has been if colleges are going to work very, very closely together, structurally, then merger is the answer. I haven't yet seen a form of federation or similar that's worked very effectively when colleges work that closely together, not just at Hadlow, I've seen that elsewhere. So, for me, mergers are a desirable outcome, and there will continue to be mergers in the sector, I'm confident of that.

Quality of governance and leadership

The second is obviously the one I write a lot about, which is about the quality of governance and leadership.

Openness, transparency, integrity, public service values, the Nolan principles, they are the things that I think are really important.

I think it's brilliant that we've now got leadership programs, such as the ones at the Saïd Business School that ETF run. I think every principal and finance director, and aspiring principal should participate in those. They touch on much of this, but at the end of the days, the quality you need to be a good chair of governors, or a good principal, or leader in a college, some of those are deep personal values.

They are about they are about transparency and openness. They are about being very much focused on students and on their experience and on their success. It's a funny thing, but if you focus on all of that all the time, a lot of other things start to work. So it's a funny old thing that doesn't seem to matter how big or small the college is, if you can get that focus on students, on teaching and learning and assessment, on student experience, then other things like the money and other things start to fall into place more easily.

So, plenty of lessons. The college, as you know, down there in Kent will continue, the provision will continue, I'm delighted to say, in one form or another. So, there will still be colleges and provision in Ashford, in Tunbridge, and in Hadlow, as they should be.

Huge credit to the staff at Hadlow, West Kent and Ashford

And I was really particularly pleased with the Ofsted visits that they've been to the colleges during their time in education ministration, because we've worked closely with the education administrator and with other colleagues to ensure that the student experience should be maintained and sustained and stabilized. And the Ofsted feedback's been very encouraging indeed from both visits. And that's a huge credit to the staff at Hadlow, West Kent and Ashford, who had to go through a lot of difficult media coverage. A lot of difficult attention. And yet the local leadership and the teaching staff and support staff there have done a fantastic job and deserve huge credit for the feedback they've had.

Richard Atkins, FE Commissioner

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