Garry Phillips describes how his college pulled itself back from financial difficulty and an Ofsted ‘inadequate’ rating, following an intervention from the deputy FE commissioner.
Ealing Hammersmith and West London’s College has appeared in FE Week several times over the last few years – and not always for the best reasons.
The college found itself in financial difficulty in 2013, receiving a notice to improve for financial health, after suffering from a deficit budget for several years, which rose into the millions of pounds.
Moreover, the quality of outcomes for students were not up to standard; a fact that was highlighted by a grade four Ofsted inspection in 2015. That inspection sparked an intervention from the deputy FE commissioner, just when the area reviews also started. Oh, and should I mention the f-word (funding)?
It is safe to say that the college hit some rough seas, in a perfect storm of events that left one route: change had to happen.
The challenge was to make the transformation quickly and sustainably, so the most important stakeholders – the students – received positive outcomes.
We had to stop any financial bleeds
It was around this time that I joined the college and, along with the board, I felt the best place to start was with a basic ‘why, what and how’ approach. The ‘why’, for any college, could only be about the students; the ‘what’ examined what we were good at as a college; and the ‘how’ considered how we could deliver on our overall reason for being – our commitment to students.
Once we had laid out the answers to these questions clearly, we knew what to change.
Firstly, we needed to save £20 million in costs, so we had to stop any financial bleeds. One example was late enrolments. As a college it was custom for us to accept over 750 late enrolments. Not as January starts or part of any NEET intervention strategy – just for the numbers. I am sure readers will understand the impact of this on the group dynamics, learning and student outcomes, not to mention the issue of delayed funding on our bank balance. So this stopped.
We also rationalised our own internal duplicate provision. This meant removing underperforming provision and that which did not lead to further or higher education or employment – including some apprenticeships, as these additional courses did not correspond to ‘why’ we did this.
We also introduced a more robust student advice and guidance process to ensure that the right student is on the right course, at the right level, to enable them to achieve.
None of this was easy, and possibly the hardest part was having to reduce staff numbers. However, we refocused on CPD and a cultural change programme that we named the ‘West London Way’, which enabled staff to tell us what they needed to succeed – and we listened. As a result, we have some state-of-the-art technology, new facilities and the chance for staff to update their own skills.
Staff costs previously represented 83 per cent of our income. They are now at a more acceptable 63 per cent and we are predicting another year of financial surplus. Staff sickness has dropped from four per cent to 2.7 per cent and 89 per cent have told us they enjoy the work that they do, which is pretty good when you bear in mind the journey we have been on.
There are also ambitious plans to build new accommodation on one of our sites.
But all this means nothing if we are not having a positive impact on student outcomes. Signs there are more than encouraging. The interim visits from Ofsted have recognised the improvement in this area and the impact of the Quality of Teaching, Learning and Assessment is at 85 per cent good or better. In November Ofsted concluded that we had made ‘significant progress’ in the improvement of learner outcomes.
For the first time in several years, student outcomes are above the last known national rate at 85.4 per cent. English and maths achievement for functional skills is 17 per cent above the national average and the college overall attendance rate now stands at 89 per cent.
There is still a lot of work to do in building on the green shoots of our growing success, but we are managing change effectively and feel that we now have a learning organisation that students and staff are truly proud to be a part of.
Garry Phillips is CEO of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College