The sight of Ofsted inspectors is not the only thing to strike fear into the heart of principals at poorly-performing colleges now the FE Commissioner is in town. But while such principals rightly face a grilling, the rest of the sector should be able to learn from the mistakes of others and the experience of the commissioner, says Jayne Stigger.

espite many calls for better early warning signals to allow early and pre-emptive interventions in FE, we now have a commissioner, David Collins, who investigates after the fact, using strong measures to ensure improvement.

In his own book, A Survival Guide for College Managers and Leaders, published in 2006, he wrote: “Institutions that are not so good work in isolation, performing poorly in a number of areas … there remains a considerable range of performance levels across the sector, … linked to the quality of the leadership and management that the college possesses.”

Is this a clear statement on his opinion of the causes of inadequate performance in FE?

Dr Collins has investigated at least four colleges since his appointment, leading to administered status at Stockport and K College, and recommendations for Bristol and Liverpool.

Yet, he does not seem to have visited Coventry, where all 16 outcomes in the main findings were inadequate, following on from two poor inspection results and overseen by a principal of 16 years’ tenure.

Are those four colleges guilty of ‘working in isolation, poorly performing in a number of areas’, or really worse than Coventry, particularly when ‘protecting learners’ interests is the primary purpose of intervention’ is the prime consideration?

Key judgements following a visit by the commissioner, leading to ‘administered status’ and/or ‘recommendations’ must be shared

Truth is, we don’t know. Currently, the commissioner’s findings are not made public, nor do we know whether that situation will change.

My view and that of many in the sector is that it should change; we need to know.

No one is suggesting that highly sensitive material be made public, but the key judgements following a visit by the commissioner, leading to ‘administered status’ and/or ‘recommendations’ must be shared with other providers.

The rules we play by are complex and as Dr Collins writes, we do operate in ‘a choppy sea of ever-changing government policies’.

If colleges are to respond to these environmental conditions, they can only benefit from full and frank sharing of information, so, why the secrecy and who benefits from it?

Not us. How can we improve, change and adapt if we don’t know the new rules?

Is the secrecy because it highlights perpetual weaknesses in the provider which Ofsted should have identified and acted on, but did not?

Or is it that the provider has simply not complied with Ofsted, departmental or Skills Funding Agency requirements?

Or maybe the reasons are not sufficiently strong to justify the response of the commissioner?

Swimming blind, in a ‘choppy sea’, is no way to run a sector.

Obfuscating the underlying concerns for the commissioner’s visit and particularly his recommendations for improvement, are against the very open nature of FE, which is collaborative, inclusive and by our very nature dedicated to continuously improving our delivery for the benefit of our learners, local communities and national economy.

Simply put, we need to know.

This information, this judgement, this determination of our status cannot be made in a ‘secret court’. These should not be closed material procedures, where secret intelligence can be introduced but will only be seen by the judge and special advocates.

These decisions are made, but we have no counsel to weigh the evidence.

As yet, there has been no college dissolution, but it is a possibility we face. There is a danger that these actions come to be viewed as politically punitive rather than educationally corrective.

If the commissioner feels it is necessary to act, then we should have feedback on why and how.

We do not doubt his knowledge and integrity, only asking that it is shared, widely, for the benefit of the whole sector.

Colleges are delivering what government has asked of them, but if the goal posts are changing, we should be told.

If there is no agenda other than clear improvement and backing for FE, then there can be no justification for withholding this information from the very sector it is purported to support.

Jayne Stigger, head of maths and science (HE) at North East Surrey College of Technology (Nescot)