The government wants an FE commissioner to step in when a college is deemed to be failing. Most colleges improve by themselves . . . so what role would he or she have, asks Joy Mercer

In its  ‘Rigour and Responsiveness’ paper, the government suggests a new tough line on college failure, proposing the appointment of an FE commissioner.

Within a fortnight of one of three triggers for intervention being ‘tripped’, he or she would advise ministers on the following options: to take over a college and decide whether a restructuring is required; to replace some or all of the governing body; to dissolve the college.

It is useful to provide some perspective here: 64 per cent of colleges are good or better by Ofsted’s own judgments. Only four colleges out of 54 have been graded as inadequate this year. There is only one case in the past five years or more where a general FE college has been judged on two separate occasions as inadequate.

Since 2009 there have been two colleges who have not only ‘jumped’ out of inadequacy, but within a year achieved a ‘good’ grade from Ofsted.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw complained to the Education Select Committee in February that there were no consequences for colleges of a poor inspection. We wrote to Graham Stuart, the committee chair, with an  analysis of what had happened to colleges deemed inadequate with evidence to the contrary – it is clear that there are often serious consequences for the senior management team.

Most colleges improve by themselves – a tribute to analytical governance and competent management.”

What of existing powers? Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and later amendments, the government already has powers to appoint new members of the governing body, direct the governing body to take actions which the Education Secretary thinks ‘expedient as to the exercise of their powers and performance of their duties’, direct the governors to collaborate with another college or a maintained school, or to dissolve the college (at which point the normal rules about dissolution apply).

But before any of this can take place, the Skills Funding Agency implements its intervention process — which gives 15 months to support improvement or decide on a different structure.

Rigour and Responsiveness is a consultation paper and an FE commissioner may be an inevitability. If that is the case, what should the role look like, given the evidence above?

First, it might be most proportionate, efficient and realistic to appoint a competent civil servant on a case-by-case basis to make an evaluation of the problem and galvanise the resources to solve it. A commissioner could be a function rather than an individual.

Second, the one size fits all nature of the proposals – in which different triggers provoke the same response (‘the commissioner in action’), could be re-examined. The college that has lost a major contract that destabilises its finances needs a different expertise and set of timescales to recover than the college judged to be failing on teaching, learning and assessment.

In a wider sense, there is a general danger in applying a broad brush approach to colleges in terms of improvement interventions. In the same way that a hospital might house pockets of clinical excellence and struggling departments, a college might have outstanding departments and those requiring improvement. This is not hiding behind complexity; it is simply describing the complexity.

Fourth, the proposed timescales appear rushed. Two weeks to make a final decision with such important implications may, in most circumstances, be too short.

Finally, let’s bear in mind that the most colleges improve by themselves – a tribute to analytical governance and competent management. So the oft and effective weapon in a commissioner’s armoury should be to support the college’s own improvement plan through resources and a watchful eye, and not just in exceptional circumstances.

Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges