New FE commissioner could shut failing colleges

A powerful commissioner who can call for a college to be shut down will be introduced under tough new further education rules due to be announced today.

The FE Commissioner will be sent in if a college is graded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, is in financial trouble or is failing to hit learner success targets.

They will report directly to Ministers with the aim of turning the college around within a year.

They could call for institutions to be slapped with ‘Administered College’ status, thereby losing powers such as staff changes, expenditure or transfer of assets.

They could also recommend governors be kicked out, but ultimately they could also call for a college to be dissolved.

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock has announced the intervention measures under the government’s new Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills strategy, along with £214m of investment in 47 colleges.

We are interested to know more about the role of the FE Commissioner”

“Where colleges are failing learners we will be knocking on their doors and take swift and effective action,” he said.

“It is a dereliction of duty to let failing colleges teach young people. We will not fail in our duty to act.

“All providers should meet tough standards of rigour and responsiveness. Through these reforms we will be able to intervene without hesitation where they fall short.”

The Shadow Minister Gordon Marsden told FE Week he was concerned about the timing of today’s announcement, saying:when Ministers return to Parliament after Easter they will have to answer detailed questions on their so called new strategy which should properly have been announced when Parliament was sitting.”

Mr Marsden went on to question if a “new FE Commissioner would cut across Ofsted’s powers and remit and be accountable to MP s and the Select Committee?”, and called for “maximum safeguarding of quality and transparency for college learners and staff in any new set up with no aping by the Skills Minister of the micro- meddling practised by his boss in the Education Department , Michael Gove”

The commissioner role was welcomed by the Association of Colleges, although chief executive Martin Doel also called for further clarification.

“While we wholeheartedly support the proposition that students, businesses and communities served by all colleges deserve the best, our experience is that the triggers for intervention suggested in these proposals may only be required in a very small number of cases each year,” he said.

Mr Doel added: “In the very rare instance of a significant failure there may well be a benefit to having a clear and quicker resolution and we are therefore interested to know more about the role of the FE Commissioner in this regard.”

For colleges who require improvement (one grade better than inadequate), Ofsted will provide enhanced support and work with them on a development plan.

But the new skills strategy also includes stronger action to support good and outstanding colleges.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, said: “We support the development of a tough, but fair approach to intervention when underperformance is identified.

“An FE Commissioner with a clear remit and a due process for intervening in the best interests of students and all stakeholders will help such colleges. For the reputation of the sector, that has to be good.”

Meanwhile, the funding announcement covered £77m of new capital funding to be matched with £137m investment from colleges. It will be allocated through the Skills Funding Agency to support projects ranging from a construction training centre to an automotive technology hub.

The funding is in addition to the £110m of the Enhanced Renewal Grant (ERG3) for 56 colleges announced in November. It means that in 2012-13, the government has invested £187m alongside college investment of £439m to enable important capital works of more than £625m.

Mr Doel said: “This new investment in college capital is a very welcome acknowledgement of their contribution to economic recovery — new buildings and facilities improve the student experience and help attract further investment from business.”

Mrs Sedgmore added: “It is good that the strategy acknowledges the vital role that colleges play in the skills development of individuals and localities. The additional capital investment in 47 colleges is recognition of that good work.”

A government spokesperson said it was hoped the FE Commissioner would be recruited by June with the new intervention arrangements in force from August.