From education to employment

Guidance for applicants to the strategic college improvement fund

The strategic college improvement fund (SCIF) provides grants to colleges that need to improve the quality of their provision of education and training.

About the SCIF

The SCIF is part of a broader strategy to ensure that England’s further education (FE) colleges help learners develop the knowledge and skills that drive individual success, social mobility and economic prosperity.

The SCIF is complemented by the national leaders of further education (NLFEs) programme, which draws on the expertise of England’s best FE professionals to help colleges better meet learners’ needs.

It’s intended that the SCIF will support colleges to deliver better outcomes for learners, employers and local communities.

It will enable colleges to access resources that they need to improve their provision for students, including the best practice of other colleges, while at the same time mobilising and strengthening improvement in the FE sector.


FE colleges and sixth-form colleges are eligible for the SCIF.

FE colleges are defined at section 91(3)(a) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (FHEA 1992). Sixth-form colleges are defined at section 91(3A) of FHEA 1992.

The grant will only be available to colleges that were graded ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ at their most recent Ofsted inspection for any of the following judgements:

  • overall effectiveness
  • 16 to 19 study programmes, adult learning programmes, apprenticeships, traineeships, provision for learners with high needs and 14 to 16 full-time provision
  • leadership and management
  • quality of teaching learning and assessment
  • personal development behaviour or welfare
  • outcomes for learners

Ofsted treats recently merged colleges as new providers that do not yet have an Ofsted inspection grade.

In these cases the college will be eligible for a SCIF grant, provided that at least one of the merged colleges satisfied the eligibility criteria listed above at its last inspection.

Application process

The application process for the SCIF has 2 stages.

At stage 1, colleges will need to provide evidence to demonstrate they:

  • meet the SCIF eligibility criteria outlined above
  • have identified a quality improvement need or needs that address the improvement needs identified (for example, in their most recent Ofsted report)
  • have a suitable approach for addressing this need
  • have the capacity and capability to deliver the improvement activities being proposed

Colleges will need to complete a stage 1 application form.

At stage 1, applicant colleges do not need to have chosen a partner college and on the application they may request assistance with finding one.

The application form will be assessed against assessment criteria.

SCIF stage 1 application form (ODT, 33.9KB)

SCIF stage 1 assessment criteria (PDF, 184KB, 3 pages)

Colleges that satisfy the assessment criteria at stage 1 will be provided with support by sector experts to develop a stage 2 application.

Following the assessment of the stage 1 application, a decision will be taken on the level of support a college will be given to develop a successful stage 2 application.

Colleges that are unsuccessful at stage 1 will receive feedback on their application, and will be able to apply again at stage 1 at any future application round.

At stage 2, colleges will complete a second, more detailed application form including proposed quality improvement activities, costings and key milestones.

Stage 2 will require colleges to demonstrate in more detail:

  • their capacity to undertake the detailed improvement programme
  • the effectiveness and impact on students of the proposed improvement activities as identified in stage 1 of the application process
  • the relevant expertise and capacity of the partner college, and any other quality partner(s) identified, to deliver the improvement programme
  • the scale and scope of expected benefits, and how value for money will be ensured and the capacity to sustain improvement when the SCIF funding is no longer available
  • a sound approach to monitoring progress, and to evaluating the results of the programme of work

SCIF stage 2 application form (MS Word Document, 76.2KB)

SCIF stage 2 assessment criteria (PDF, 320KB, 10 pages)

SCIF stage 2 specific activities and risks (ODT, 47.4KB)

Colleges can use the ‘specific activities and risks’ spreadsheet to answer question 4 if this is the preferred format.

Application timescales

Colleges wishing to apply for SCIF need to complete the attached stage 1 application and submit it to: [email protected] with the title ‘SCIF stage 1 application’.

Stage 1  
Deadline for receipt of stage 1 applications Monday 3 December 2018
Colleges informed of outcome of stage 1 application Friday 11 January 2019
Stage 2  
Deadline for stage 2 application Friday 8 February 2019
Colleges informed of outcome of stage 2 application Friday 1 March 2019

We expect to launch a third round of applications in winter 2019.

Applications at stages 1 and 2 will be assessed by officials from DfE, Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and independent sector experts.

Applications will also be reviewed by deputies or advisers from the FE Commissioner’s team and ESFA’s intervention teams. They will not participate in the assessment of applications but may be asked to support the work of the assessment panel by providing additional information that corroborates or challenges information contained in applications.

During the assessment process, DfE or ESFA may contact applicant colleges and their partner colleges for further information about their application.

Working with a quality improvement partner

In order to receive a SCIF grant, colleges must work with a partner college to undertake the programme of work that their application proposes.

The application process for the SCIF has 2 stages.

At stage 1, applicant colleges do not need to have chosen a partner college. On their application, they may request assistance with finding a partner.

As it prepares its application for stage 2, an applicant college must have chosen a partner college.

It will work with that partner to refine its understanding of the quality challenges it faces, develop a rigorous and costed programme of work, and use the experience of the partner to put that improvement programme in place.

With the partner college’s agreement, support may also be sourced from third parties – for example, from another college, a school, or another not-for-profit or private provider.

These third parties must be named on the stage 2 application, and the application must provide evidence of their capacity and capability to deliver the desired support.

The support that the partner college provides to the applicant must account for a minimum of 25% of the total costs of the programme of work. This funding will reimburse the costs incurred by the partner college for its services.

This will ensure a true partnering model where the stronger college invests the resource needed to meaningfully support the applicant college as it works to improve.

In order to foster mutual learning and reinforce the partnership approach, an additional 10% of the programme of work’s expenditures may fund targeted quality improvement activities that primarily benefit the partner college.

Funding conditions

Applications are not restricted to a predetermined list of activities. They may, in principle, include proposals for a wide variety of activities and projects that will help improve the quality of provision at the applicant college.

Feedback from the SCIF pilot and lessons from round 1 suggest that the more effective SCIF projects focus attention on a limited range of improvement activities rather than taking a broad approach.

While this list is not exhaustive, such activities might include:

  • the coaching of managers and other staff to improve their performance
  • instructional programmes to enhance staff skills to support teaching, learning and assessment
  • more effective use of data to improve student performance
  • improved support to students, including better control over student attendance
  • enhanced design of the curriculum
  • strengthened relationships with employers (for example, via enhanced work-based learning)
  • monitoring and evaluation of the results of the programme of work

However, a number of activities cannot be funded from a SCIF grant:

  • capital expenditures – spending on the purchase of assets (for example, buildings, furniture, fittings, information technology, software) valued at over £2,500, which are expected to be used for a period of at least 12 months. However, items valued below £2,500 are not counted as capital assets, even where they have a productive life of more than 1 year
  • restructuring recommended by an area review process
  • staff restructuring
  • independent business reviews
  • marketing or public relations activities
  • activities that are predominantly focused on a college’s higher education provision

Furthermore, a SCIF grant cannot be used to fund activities and services which the applicant college would otherwise be able to access free of charge.

In cases where the applicant college can access activities or services at a subsidised rate, the SCIF grant cannot be used to pay for the same activities at a higher ‘market’ rate.

Unlike the grant itself, the college’s match funding can be used for capital expenditures and staff restructuring – as long as the applicant demonstrates the relevance of these expenditures to its proposed programme of quality improvement.

Deputies and advisers who work as contractors for the FE Commissioner are not eligible to receive funds that come from a SCIF grant.

Other conditions of the grant

One grant per college

Applicant colleges may not receive more than one SCIF grant. This applies across the application rounds.

For these purposes, college groups count as a single applicant. We will not accept applications from individual constituent colleges that operate within a wider college group structure.

Only in the cases of recent or planned mergers, where one of the colleges meets the SCIF criteria, can constituent colleges act as the partner college for other colleges within their own group.

Total eligible costs may include irrecoverable VAT. However, no SCIF grant in excess of the agreed payment amount will be provided in relation to any VAT in addition to the amount of grant agreed.

Funding available per application, and required contributions from colleges

We expect that SCIF-funded quality improvement programmes will typically require a grant ranging between £80,000 and £200,000.

At stage 1, applicant colleges will only need to provide an estimate of the amount of the grant they require.

At stage 2 they must provide full costings, including details of the matched funding costs and percentage partner contribution. Assessment criteria will help ensure that only applications that provide good value for money are funded.

Applicant colleges will be expected to contribute a minimum of 25% of the total costs of the programme of work to their proposed improvement programme.

Matched funding must meet true incremental costs incurred by the college for its quality improvement programme of work – for example, additional time-limited internal staffing.

‘In-kind’ matches – for example, payment for the salaries of existing staff who are simply reallocated to a SCIF project, without those staff being replaced in their former functions – are not eligible.

Programmes of work can include the cost of temporarily replacing current staff with additional staff members.

However, colleges are strongly encouraged, as they develop their stage 2 application, to fund staff replacement costs out of their match contribution, rather than from the SCIF grant itself.

In exceptional circumstances, when providing matched funding might potentially undermine a college’s financial viability, the match requirement may be waived.

Decisions on matched funding contributions will be based on ESFA’s most recent assessment of a college’s financial health.

The methodology for this is outlined in the College Financial Planning Handbook 2018. Colleges whose financial health is assessed as ‘inadequate’ will be eligible for a waiver of the match funding requirement.

Monitoring and reporting

Successful colleges will be required to provide ESFA with monitoring returns on their use of the grant funds. They must provide:

  • a summary of progress on the agreed programme of work, including progress against agreed performance indicators
  • a description of any changes to the programme of work
  • an identification of risks that are having or could have an impact on the agreed programme of work
  • an updated spend profile/forecast which accounts for expenditure made using both SCIF funding and the college’s own financial contributions to date


Grant recipients will be expected to work alongside the DfE or an independent evaluator to refine and agree key performance indicators and finalise self-evaluation plans.

Over the course of its grant-funded activity, the college will work with its partner college and DfE or an independent evaluator to undertake self-evaluation of its programme of work.

The college may also be required to feed in data and evidence for the purpose of a programme-wide evaluation of the SCIF.

As part of the stage 2 process, applications must include details on how a college intends to evaluate the impact of the work programme and how this will be measured.

The data generated from these evaluations will be shared with DfE and may be published in a way that does not identify individuals or the colleges concerned (unless explicit permission is gathered in advance).

Payment and repayment of funding

All SCIF payments will be made by the ESFA to the applicant college under a funding agreement schedule issued for this purpose.

The grant will become repayable, through a future reduction in ESFA funding, if:

  • the grant funding is not spent by a date agreed in advance with ESFA
  • the grant funding is not spent on eligible activities outlined in the application (or variants there of agreed with ESFA, using the process described in this guidance)
  • the college does not provide its required contribution
  • reports on expenditures and outcomes are not submitted

SCIF recipients

You can view a list of colleges that have successfully applied for strategic college improvement funding.

Further information

If you have any enquiries about the SCIF or the content of this guidance please contact us.

Strategic College Improvement Fund team

Email[email protected]

Published 28 June 2018
Last updated 6 November 2018 + show all updates

  1. Updated guidance for round 2 of the SCIF application process and the stage 1 and stage 2 applications forms.
  2. Added the documents ‘SCIF stage 2 application form’, ‘SCIF stage 2 assessment criteria’ and ‘SCIF stage 2 specific activities and risks’.
  3. First published.


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