President Atkins reveals concern over falling performance

President Atkins reveals concern over falling performance

Association of Colleges (AoC) president Richard Atkins has told of his concern at in depth research by FE Week that uncovered how the sector’s Ofsted inspection performance was plummeting.

The results of research, which featured in last week’s newspaper, showed the proportion of general FE and tertiary colleges inspected so far in 2014/15 and graded inadequate or told to improve was up 27 percentage points on last academic year to 69 per cent.

It was a similar story for sixth form colleges and independent learning providers as 66 per cent of inspections across the sector resulted in providers being rated as inadequate or requires improvement so far this year— it stood at 36 per cent last year.

“I’m disappointed and concerned because we’d had two years where it was creeping up,” said Mr Atkins, principal of outstanding-rated Exeter College.

“There’s an element of course where they’re not doing inspections randomly, they’re picking the colleges that are grade three and grade four.

“But I think we are assessed in a very tough way on the English and maths. That was a brand new policy 18 months ago — colleges didn’t have to implement it until last summer and yet every inspection report has had quite a bit to say on English and maths, so I think that’s quite tough.”

Mr Atkins is the seventh AoC president and counts Bournville College principal Michele Sutton CBE and City College Coventry governors’ chair Maggie Galliers CBE among his predecessors. They were principals at Bradford College and Leicester College, respectively, at the time of their appointments.

“I was nervous about starting the job and about balancing it with my college,” said Mr Atkins.

“I thought it would be hard work but I may have underestimated it. Having said that, I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would — it’s actually been fun.”

Nomination papers were sent out last week for the AoC president’s role. An election will be held from March 9 until April 1 and two days later the new president will be announced.

A president’s top five tips for presidency

– Your college needs to be relatively stable in terms of quality and finance and so on — no college is totally stable, but relatively. You should also have a recent Ofsted visit behind you, not looming in the next year

– You have one or two people within the senior team you can genuinely delegate significantly more to and have trust and confidence in them that they can take on some of your roles

– You have a genuine appetite and really want to be in policy development, influencing and meeting politicians, stakeholders and civil servants

– You should be accessible to London as a lot of work is based there — I’m two and half hours away, which is fine, but I’d have thought four hours would be a killer although it depends on personal toleration. But you also have the happy with travelling around the country as well as trying and visit the regions.

– You need some experience as a principal — I’d say it’s not for someone in their first three, four or five years

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As nominations open for the next Association of Colleges (AoC) president, FE Week caught up with current president for a Q&A on what he’s made of the role so far.

What is the role of the AoC president?

I’m the seventh president. We feel as an organisation it’s worked well, it brings into this building a working, practicing college principal and that’s a good thing in lots of ways.

I think the job is partly ceremonial and partly going to award ceremonies and things like that, but it’s also giving the policy team here the voice of a working principal who’s in college two or three days a week and regularly feeding into that. It feels to me that I’m one of the team.

I get pretty regular contact with senior civil servants, with policy makers, with ministers and with Ofsted, which I think if you’re a working principal is interesting and good for my professional development and hopefully I can add something to those meetings.

We try and get me out to the regions to regional meetings of principals and chairs as well. It’s about listening, as well as updating them on policy and development and all the rest because we’re a membership organisation. I also attend an AoC board meeting once a week.

What made you stand for election?

I’d been on the AoC board, so I’d seen from a distance the role of president. And I think my first reaction was one of ‘that isn’t for me’ — because I haven’t sought out national roles particularly in the past and I’m quite happy with a low profile really.

What appealed particularly to me was I thought I could bring something to the role given my length of experience — 20 years and principal — and the broad curriculum my college has.

What have you enjoyed about the role?

The benefits are considerable. I’ve had an insight into policy making as it happens that I wouldn’t normally have got and hopefully my college benefits as a result — and its stretched me in a while range of positive ways.

It’s a fantastic opportunity and a privilege to represent your peers and speak on behalf of student and staff in all of the 330 colleges.

It’s also a really friendly, helpful place to work, and I enjoy working in central London.

I also really enjoy travelling, and this isn’t really a job you can do if you don’t.

One thing you don’t do as a principal is visit other colleges much — within your locality it’s not the done thing, so I think I visited more colleges this year than I’ve visited in the rest of the time I was a principal. And people are very open and that’s been a real insight.

I’ve also been learning about public affairs and lobbying, all of which is helpful to my college.

What has surprised you about the role?

The complexity of the lobbying has surprised me. When I first became a principal I thought ‘why don’t people should louder? If we shouted louder, they’d all know FE was here’. But it’s much more complicated than that. It’s about building relationships with Ministers and policy makers and political advisers. It’s about making sure your agenda become their agenda and trying to create solutions for them.

A lot of the work is long term. In college you work on an annual cycle, there’s a rhythm to it. Here, you don’t see the results of your work often over long periods of time — some things being discussed won’t come to anything until three presidents down the line or five years or the next government.

And there is a long termism here which you don’t get in college. You have to play the long game.

I was also nervous about starting the job but I’ve enjoyed it more than I thought I would — I’ve enjoyed doing something different three days a week. It has stretched me and stimulated me in different ways. It’s like when people take sabbaticals to recharge their batteries — that’s what it’s done for me, given me a big battery charge. It’s been very stimulating, very interesting.

I thought it would be hard work but I may have underestimated it.

What’s the one thing you would like to change about the sector?

The national standing of the sector. Individual colleges have great recognition in their local area and are valued but that’s just not true on a national level.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of in the role?

I am proud of the manifesto and the way we’ launched it. We had positive feedback.

We did capture the key issues on principals’ and governors’ minds, and we’ve developed it in a way that is flexible — what we couldn’t do was write down a whole long list of very specific things we wanted, so we had to address a series of issues so that we could have a dialogue with politicians on.

And it does serve as a stimulus for conversation when we meet with politicians and policy makers.

What’s the achievement you’ve seen that you’ve been most impressed by?

It’s difficult to pick just one. Without naming them, I’ve been to two colleges, one in Yorkshire and Humberside and one in the West Midlands, which have gone from inadequate to good outstanding within about four or five years, and that’s really impressive, the focus on students and the journey they’ve been through, it’s fantastic.

I was just really impressed by the calibre of principals and senior staff I met and the feedback from the students.

Coming into the election, what would you like to see parties prioritising?

If I was going to do it again, this is the year I’d want to do it because there’s a general election.

It’s extremely lively at the moment, policies developing quickly and we’re having to respond to that fast and gauge views of members.

The bit that hasn’t surprised me is its challenging getting the college agenda to the top of the list.

We’re inching up the list of priorities — in terms of awareness of the sector we’re doing as well or better that we have in any previous election since incorporation.

If I had to pick out the top thing I want politicians to commit to, it would be this fundamental review of funding we called for in our manifesto — they need to look at why 16 to 18 keeps getting squeezed in this way.

I cannot really think of rational reason why a country should require everyone to be in learning until 18 but stop the ringfence of funding at 16.

What do you make of the sector’s decline in Ofsted grades this year?

I think if you’re going to get a good or outstanding Ofsted these days you have to be very focussed on learner success – the leadership and governors have to have a very strong focus on teaching and learning and student experience and in some cases from what I read, that’s not there.

At the moment the Ofsted grade is key — it’s just the most important external measure, because yes you’ve got league tables, but Ofsted is the only one the public recognise.

Colleges should take all the support they can get and focus on that.

What’s been the most nerve wracking moment of the role for you?

The most nerve wracking moment of the year was talking at the AoC conference.

It’s one thing talking to a staff meeting, or a public meeting in my part of the world as a college principal, but it’s much more always difficult talking to your peers — you do feel the spotlight.

What’s next for you?

I’m nearer the end of my career as a principal than the beginning, but what this job has taught me is that I’m unlikely to simply retire and stop doing anything.

As long as there are interesting things to keep doing in our sector I’ll keep doing them for a while.

At the moment my plan is to go back to my college, I don’t think I’ll go back for that long because I will have been there 14 years and I think that’s probably enough for the college and I.

So I will look and see what interesting opportunities exist that are less than full-time.

What are your top five tips for someone thinking of running for president?

Your college needs to be relatively stable in terms of quality and finance and so on — no college is totally stable, but relatively. You should also have a recent Ofsted visit behind you, not looming in the next year.

You have one or two people within the senior team you can genuinely delegate significantly more to and have trust and confidence in them that they can take on some of your roles.

You have a genuine appetite and really want to be in policy development, influencing and meeting politicians, stakeholders and civil servants.

You should be accessible to London as a lot of work is based there — I’m two and half hours away, which is fine, but I’d have thought four hours would be a killer although it depends on personal toleration. But you also have the happy with travelling around the country as well as trying and visit the regions.

You need some experience as a principal — I’d say it’s not for someone in their first three, four or five years.

Anything else?

Just that I would unreservedly recommend this role. My advice would be to be brave and stand and if you have a genuine appetite to get involved in this work and represent the sector you’ll really enjoy it.