FE commissioner’s powers need ‘consideration’

Further education leaders have told of concerns about the proposed FE Commissioner’s two-week timescale for deciding the fate of struggling colleges.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) and the University and College Union (UCU) have both said that the government’s plans for a powerful FE Commissioner needed further consideration.

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock announced the plans this month as part of the government’s Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills strategy.

The strategy said a commissioner would be sent in if a college was graded inadequate by Ofsted, was in financial trouble or was failing to hit learner success targets.

The proposed timescales appear rushed”

He or she could call for institutions to be given administered college status, thereby losing powers such as staff changes, expenditure or transfer of assets.

They could also recommend governors be kicked out — and ultimately could call for a college to be dissolved.

However, the commissioner would be expected to have finished his or her investigations within a fortnight.

Joy Mercer, AoC director of education policy, said: “While speeding up necessary intervention may be a good thing, the proposed timescales appear rushed.”

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: “We would raise the red flag about the very short two-week timeframe to decide the fate of a college.”

She added: “This timescale needs to be made significantly longer to protect the interests of staff and students.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), said: “We are meeting with Ofsted, the Skills Funding Agency as well as FE sector representatives to ensure there is clarity over respective roles, and will communicate fuller information on how arrangements will work once the commissioner has been appointed.”

However, Lynne Sedgmore, 157 Group executive director, wondered what thresholds would apply “between placing a college into administration, replacing its governing body and dissolving it altogether.”

“The commissioner will need to take into account a wide range of views from relevant stakeholders — not least from learners — when forming their opinion on how to intervene,” she said.

Norman Crowther, national official for post-16 education at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Would it not be simpler to commission Learning and Skills Improvement Service support for the 4 per cent of struggling colleges and to work with the FE Guild on how it manages challenges to colleges?”

The BIS spokesperson said: “We shortly will be seeking expressions of interest for both this role and the group of FE advisers who will support the commissioner.”

For more on Ms Mercer’s take on the FE Commissioner plans, see her expert piece.