Richard Atkins CBE, Further Education Commissioner

This will be my last annual report as FE Commissioner, with my extended second term in the role due to end in March 2021.

I have hugely enjoyed my time as FE Commissioner and the opportunity it has given to work with so many colleges across the country.

My first few years in this role coincided with a ‘perfect storm’ for colleges including a significant fall in the numbers of young people leaving school, real terms funding cuts, increased competition from other providers, and the introduction of the insolvency legislation.

Colleges have done a brilliant job of maintaining education standards during this challenging period, and this year we are now seeing, at last, increases in demography and base funding rates for 16 to 19 year olds, together with a strong focus on Further Education colleges by government.

Never been more proud to be part of this sector

Nonetheless, I will be handing over at another challenging time for colleges, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continuing to dominate headlines, and all of you working so hard to ensure that your premises are a safe place for staff and learners.

I have never been more proud to be part of a sector that adapted so superbly to the lockdown in March 2020. Colleges moved quickly to implement online learning, with many distributing laptops to those who needed them, whilst staff and leaders performed heroic feats to ensure that learners were able to continue to learn.

I know from my online and physical visits to colleges since April what an amazing job you are all doing for your students during this health emergency.

College visits

Although we suspended college visits during the lockdown in spring 2020, my team of Deputy FE Commissioners and Advisers continued to work alongside our National Leaders of Further Education (NLFEs) and National Leaders of Governance (NLGs), the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) Territorial Teams and DfE policy colleagues to offer support and advice to colleges.

This gave us a good opportunity to see the work that colleges were doing to keep things running for their students, as well as the challenges that they have faced during the current crisis.

My team and I resumed our visits to colleges in August 2020, typically visiting the college as one part of the assessment rather than basing ourselves at the college for the duration, as we did prior to lockdown.

Diagnostic assessment requests

I continue to be pleased to see colleges coming forward to talk to us in order to request a diagnostic assessment.

Prior to the lockdown in March, my team and I had already carried out 11 diagnostic assessments (DAs) of colleges in the 2019/20 reporting year. As well as these 11 new DAs, we continue to work very closely with colleges where DAs have taken place in previous years. In total, to date, we have now undertaken 79 DAs since 2017.

Prior to the spring lockdown, 11 colleges were referred for FE Commissioner intervention and received their first assessment visit during the 2019/20 reporting period. In supporting these colleges, we have continued to work closely with colleagues in the Territorial and Provider Market Oversight teams within the ESFA. Since my appointment in 2016, to date we have conducted 59 intervention assessments at FE and Sixth Form colleges.

The published intervention assessment reports provide a helpful resource for college governors and leaders.

Independent Review of College Financial Oversight

I welcome the government’s response to Dame Mary Ney’s Independent Review of College Financial Oversight, which will continue to strengthen the alignment between the FE Commissioner team and ESFA colleagues as we work together to provide the best level of support, challenge and advice to colleges.

I was also pleased to see in response to Dame Mary’s Review, as we work towards a more strategic relationship with colleges, plans being developed for regular, annual dialogue between members of the FE Commissioner and ESFA territorial teams and all colleges.

My team and ESFA colleagues continue to work closely together to manage the impact and workload of intervention and DAs on colleges.

New Recruits

During 2019/20, as our work has increased, I have been delighted to welcome one new Deputy FE Commissioner to my team, Martin Sim, and five new FE Advisers, Laraine Smith, Nigel Duncan, Tracy Kitchingman, Steve Campion and Becky Edwards. These highly experienced and knowledgeable sector specialists, including three recent successful Principal/CEOs, have added real strength to what was an already outstanding team, and I have very much enjoyed working with them.

We have also recruited a number of new NLFEs and NLGs during the past year, taking the total number working with us up to 19. These serving college leaders and chairs with a strong track record of college improvement have made a significant difference at the colleges where they have provided support and advice. NLFEs and NLGs have now supported over 100 college principals, CEOs and governing bodies to date.

Principals’ Reference Group

The Principals’ Reference Group (PRG) has played a key role during the past year in bringing the knowledge and experience of serving college principals into the Department for Education. Their involvement is welcomed by ministers and officials within the department, who have been engaging with the group regularly.

I have been keen to refresh membership of this group on a regular basis to enable the department to benefit from the expertise of as many as possible of our high achieving principals.

I was delighted to be able to recruit four new PRG members to the group this year. The PRG has continued to support and challenge me in my role as FE Commissioner and is enormously important in contributing and feeding into FE college policy development. I would particularly like to thank Shelagh Legrave and Mandie Stravino for their contributions as founder members of the PRG.

College Collaboration Fund

I was pleased that the department was able to launch an application round for the College Collaboration Fund this year, despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 20 colleges were successful in bidding for up to £500,000 each from this £5.4m fund.

I am clear that increased collaboration with other colleges is crucial as we move forward, and this funding to enable colleges to work with each other to share good practice and develop quality improvement priorities is crucial for the sector.

I have been enormously proud to serve as the FE Commissioner, and to work with so many of you since 2016.

Thank you all, for everything you have done and are doing in these challenging times to ensure that the education and training that your colleges provide has been able to make such a difference to so many lives.

Richard Atkins CBE, Further Education Commissioner

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