After a visit from FE Commissioner Dr David Collins in 2014, Weymouth College went from an Ofsted rating of inadequate to good in just 11 months last year. Nigel Evans explains how the feat was achieved.

Then FE Week asked me to write something on the turnaround at Weymouth College, it would be true to say that I was very flattered. However, I appreciate that we have been on a somewhat unique journey over the past year.

One of the key features of our ability to address the (critical) issues at Weymouth College has been leadership and management, and that doesn’t mean it is all about me. Quite the reverse.

I read the Barnfield College article in FE Week and was interested by the comments: ‘We’ve achieved a lot in 10 months. We now have a fantastic staff team, as over one third of the staff have changed, mostly managers.’ This may have been true at Barnfield — it certainly isn’t at Weymouth. We significantly reduced our staff ratio percentage but lost very few staff during our journey, and I think that single factor has probably contributed most to our success. The Weymouth College staff know this isn’t just about continuous institutional review, restructuring, retracting and redundancy.

I also read with interest, the FE Commissioner Dr David Collins’ words: ‘‘Dr Collins said that he had also identified issues with the background knowledge of some principals, however he said that this ‘doesn’t matter if you have got a very strong team around you’ but warned if the management team as a whole was weak the college ‘was at risk of getting into difficulties’’.

This is what I wanted to dwell upon. Dr Collins has provided real clarity for us at Weymouth. What he has said is true, we didn’t have it right and what was worse, we didn’t know what was wrong. So last year we had some painful reshuffles at senior level where we did lose a small number of senior staff where we didn’t have sufficient expertise, particularly at financial level. As a consequence we engaged Andrew Tyley (ex-finance director and principal and now part of the commissioner’s team) to help lead us out of our financial mire. Crucial here was also the ability of our new senior leadership team to provide accurate management information. The college culture was always going to be another key factor that brought Weymouth College out of difficulty.

We have rapid and effective decision-making and with the notable lack of egos

The current corporation and senior leadership team are the best that I have ever worked with and all staff contributed to our current position as we continue our journey to outstanding. The lessons from us are — teamwork, trust, openness and transparency, everyone working together for the benefit of the college’s future. We are now very lean (and mean) and it is a really good place to be, we have rapid and effective decision-making and with the notable lack of egos this creates a great formula for being a responsive and effective College.

And anyway, if you want my personal view, I think we all need to remember that, at principal level, we are only custodians of our colleges. It simply isn’t our role to lead our colleges as a reflection of ourselves — but it is about us ensuring that our colleges are fit for purpose, financially viable and serve our communities to the upmost.

It isn’t about us — and that, for me, is a potential danger facing the sector as we sit in the middle of a very ambitious and all-encompassing Area Review process following a government steer towards ‘larger and more resilient Colleges’. Even if a college is ‘larger and supposedly more resilient’ — whatever the size and makeup, you only need one errant principal and unreliable financial management information to bring it to its knees.

We need to be aware that what can come with ‘larger’/federated colleges can be, multi-layered hierarchies, where decision-making is constipated and sometimes impossible. The problems we had at Weymouth were nothing to do with being a small college and the fact we are back on the right track so quickly shows how much can be achieved without mergers, shared services or federations.