Just two years ago, Lewisham Southwark College suffered the dubious honour of being the first FE and skills provider in the UK to receive two grade fours in a row from Ofsted.
But since hitting rock bottom, the college has welcomed a new leadership team, is undergoing a controversial merger with the Newcastle-based NCG group and, most surprisingly of all, has achieved a complete turnaround that it claims will rank it above the national average for learner outcomes and quality.
Our new reporter Pippa Allen-Kinross spoke to Gordon Gillespie, the college’s vice-principal of curriculum, learning and teaching, to find out how things have changed so dramatically in such a short space of time.
When Gordon Gillespie joined Lewisham Southwark College, it had already received its infamous second grade four. Its coffers were empty and it had been placed into administrative status by the FE commissioner’s office under a leadership which was, he claims, “indifferent”.
He was part of a new senior leadership team brought in by newly appointed principal Carole Kitching in June 2015, who went on a mission to “win back hearts and minds” to the floundering college.
“Carole is a very clear leader,” he says. “Her communication with staff is honest and regular, and she’s always open for a chat. She knows what she’s doing and all of those things add up to success.
“One of the first things we did was tell the staff they weren’t all terrible, they weren’t all grade four, and actually there was a lot of talent and skill in the college.
“We set to tackling long-standing issues of bad discipline, of a mentality that cared more about bums on seats than proper investment in making sure learners were put on the right courses.
The culture of the place, the ambience, the environment, everything was feeling a lot better
“Within a year we went up to a grade three. We could see there was a change. The really big success was the academic year 2016/2017; all of a sudden the new quality assurance practices, the time invested in learners and making sure they were at the centre of what we do rather than the periphery, it started to show. The culture of the place, the ambience, the environment, everything was feeling a lot better.”
The college claims it has now secured a place in the upper tenth percentile of colleges in the UK on performance, and that it ranks above the national average in achievement across all age groups. According to Gordon, if the provider compared itself with last year’s national averages it would rank as one of the top 20 colleges in the UK, and in the top two in London. He is confident it would receive a grade two were another Ofsted inspection to beckon, and wants to become ‘outstanding’ in the next year.
However, Ofsted ratings haven’t been the only controversy faced by LSC.
A merger was announced with the Newcastle-based NCG group in March, a decision which Lewisham council at the time told FE Week was “disappointing”.
Despite this, Gordon is confident that the merger will bring only more good news, including plans to expand on their higher education and apprenticeship offering, and insists the independence of the college has not been compromised.
“It’s rather exciting, because you have something that’s large and powerful and strong and has good finances, and it’s there to support us rather than direct us. They have the second biggest apprenticeship arm in the UK, and having that experience on board is really helping us,” he enthuses.
“We wanted to remain independent, true to local people and the boroughs that we serve, working with local politicians and boroughs for local skills issues without inference. The simple fact of the matter is that if we had merged with another London college we would be a different organisation now.
“There are huge benefits strategically, psychologically for staff and managers and politically as well to be able to say that we have not changed. We are still LSC.”
And the college is nothing if not ambitious: its Southwark campus recently received a £43 million renovation, while Lewisham is hoping to have £56 million invested in the next four years, thanks in no small part to NCG’s robust bank balances.
“The thing we all feel most proud of is that it would have been easy for managers and staff in this college to really think the plug is about to be pulled out and the water is going to drip away,” he says.
“They stuck with it because they wanted learners to do better than they had done before, and because they were good, honest, hardworking people. As a result of that, and some half-decent leadership, we have turned the college around.
“We are seeing the proper value of not just staff but learners as well. We came from the depths of despair but now the future is looking very bright.”