Failing colleges should of course be the main concern of the new FE Commissioner, but the benefit of his experience should also be extended to high-performing colleges and Ofsted, says Denise Brown-Sackey.
It’s an inevitability of big, complex organisations that sometimes the wrong person ends up doing an important, well-designed job. I doubt I’m the first to have come across the ‘square peg in a round hole’ problem at some point.
With the recent appointment of Dr David Collins as FE Commissioner, there’s a part of me that fears we might have the reverse problem — a great candidate filling a less than perfect job.
David’s appointment is great news for the sector. He has huge experience, something which I know will matter to us all.
And there are aspects of the job, too, about which I’m excited.
I’m glad, for instance, that David will be based within government. FE still doesn’t get the policy-making attention it deserves. Expert advice at the highest level should help remedy that, especially if both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education engage with David’s work.
Looking forward, it would be exciting if the FE Commissioner post set a trend in education for bringing such advice inside government. After all, as a Parliamentary report pointed out a couple of years ago, the Departments of Health, Defence, International Development and others all have senior professional officers working with Ministers. Their absence in education is an odd one.
I also welcome the fact that David, himself an experienced college leader, will have a role in dealing with the poorest-performing. The sector can’t bury its head in the sand and pretend there is no room for improvement: there is plenty. And who better than an ex-principal to aid those institutions in need of support?
But there lies my biggest regret about the post. The language around its functions is highly negative, suggesting an entirely crumbling sector.
The words “driving improvement” are given in the headline as a key part of David’s role (I can’t help remember Sir Humphrey’s proclamation, in ‘Yes, Minister’, that you should always “dispose of the difficult bit in the title”), but the remainder of the press notice talks only of failure, of closing colleges, of inadequacy and monitoring and minimum standards.
I’m not for a second saying that those things shouldn’t happen. Indeed, I’m happier than many colleagues to stick my head out and argue that poorer colleges (and, indeed, schools, hospitals, and anything else) should close if they persistently fail to improve.
My concern is that the language furthers the existing ‘us and them’ feel which exists between government and our sector. This isn’t the most helpful way to begin.
I hope very much that David, once in post, has access to Ofsted management
The relationship between the commissioner and Ofsted will also need defining. I have concerns about the Ofsted framework and feel strongly using a schools model to inspect colleges is akin to inspecting nursing homes on an A&E department template.
I hope very much that David, once in post, has access to Ofsted management — having his knowledge taken on board when designing frameworks would be great for us all.
There’s a further regret for the wider sector, too, I think. The college I’m privileged to lead is a high-performing one, but there’s no question that I – as a comparatively new principal – and my senior team could learn hugely from David’s experience and expertise. As it stands, we won’t get to, because, as a good college, we won’t come into contact with him or his team of advisers.
I agree with Matthew Hancock that there is room for improvement across FE, but the commissioner working with us all would support that.
It could also lead, in turn, to more partnership working between colleges. Evidence from the City Challenge programme, and academic studies, prove that such arrangements drive up standards and performance greatly, and they’d chime well with the localism being urged by government.
Denise Brown-Sackey, principal, Newham College