EXCLUSIVE: BIS to go public with commissioner’s failing college judgments

The results of FE Commissioner David Collins’ inspections of failing colleges are to be made public, FE Week can reveal.

Dr Collins, who can call for college leaders to be stripped of powers and even advise the Skills Minister to shut a college down, took up the newly-created post in December, but his reports and recommendations have been largely kept under wraps.

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told FE Week: “The decision has been taken to publish summaries of the findings from the FE Commissioner to enable the sector to see and learn lessons from those that have been through the process.

“The timing of publication for each summary will be determined on a case by case basis and the first report is due to be published at the end of this month.”

So far Dr Collins has visited at least six colleges — K College, Stockport College, Barnfield College, City of Bristol College and City of Liverpool College.

He has also been to LeSoCo, but his warning of weaknesses in leadership at the grade four South London college failed to result in a change in either principal or chair of governors.

However, the weight of public pressure could now be behind commissioner findings with publication of his judgments.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “There’s a difficult balance between ensuring that any information published following a visit from the FE Commissioner doesn’t disadvantage the college in question, and the need for openness and transparency.

“The department appears to have found a reasonable compromise.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “There is no sense in keeping important transferable learning under lock and key at a time when the sector needs to improve its leadership effectiveness and the effect this can have on jobs.

“More broadly there is a real need for greater openness in the sector to learning from the things that aren’t working well, rather than seeking to bury these for fear of reputational loss or simply labouring under the mistaken belief that there is no other way forward.

“We’d rather colleges did not have to find there are other ways forward following a visit from the commissioner.”

The news emerged following an FE Week request to the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), under the Freedom of Information Act, for the commissioner’s findings. The SFA refused, but also said it “notes the currency of the information and the plans held by BIS to publish information relating to the outcome of the requested information, including the implementation of a process for publication”.

Dr Stephan Jungnitz, colleges specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders said: “The work that the FE Commissioner undertakes is of such significance that it should be transparent and open to wider scrutiny.

“The opportunity to learn from others is always welcome, it’s an important part of the quality improvement process.

“Hopefully the reports will be analytical, objective, and resist the current fashion for scapegoating individuals.”

University and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “We need to see the details of these reports to better understand what has happened and to ensure we learn from mistakes.

“We were not the only ones surprised at how well rewarded some college leaders have been despite failings at their institutions.”

She added: “The time has come for proper transparency in the sector.”

The results of commissioner visits currently already carried out are expected to be among the first published.