Richard Atkins reflects on a year at the helm of one of the most important jobs in FE, and what is to come

In April last year, I retired after 21 years as a college principal, and planned to work less and relax more. By the end of October I had started work as the second FE commissioner, leading a small team of former principals, vice-principals and finance specialists to provide support and intervention to colleges, on behalf of the apprenticeships and skills minister. Helping colleges in difficulty to improve is a tough job – but having been a principal, I know leading a college through that change is even harder.

And it has certainly been a year of change! In January we moved from BIS to the DfE, and in March we completed the 37 area reviews, giving me an input to policy development. A lot has been achieved. Intervention focuses on improving colleges that are ‘inadequate’ or have failed financially. On the first we have seen very major progress: the number of ‘inadequate’ colleges halved over last year – and three have progressed to ‘good’. Seeing this progression has been hugely rewarding, and is a great testament to the leadership teams.

As for financial health, when I arrived there were a number of colleges with problems that felt intractable – often high levels of historic debt. The area reviews have really made a difference here: the colleges that I was most worried about have now either already merged with a stronger partner or are well on the way.

While intervention is effective, it’s much better to support improvement earlier, reducing the impact on learners and the cost of turnaround

I know restructuring is challenging and things do not always work out as planned. In a number of cases my team has been involved in adjusting recommendations. What matters to me is that we ultimately get good solutions. We have a limited window, while we have government restructuring funding, and before the insolvency regime, to support colleges to improve. It is really important that leaders test their financial plans and are confident of a future with no exceptional financial support.

The big change to what I do over the next year will be engaging with colleges at an earlier stage. When I began, it was clear that while intervention is effective, it’s much better to support improvement earlier, reducing the impact on learners and the cost of turnaround. Justine Greening’s announcement in July, for an expanded commissioner role, a strategic college improvement fund and national leaders of further education, was a really positive development.

My team will now be undertaking “diagnostic” visits to colleges at risk. These will have a different type and tone of visit from intervention. My team will be working with chairs, principals and senior teams to implement effective improvement strategies. We are not just making recommendations, but will bring real resources to bear.

I am excited to work with some of the best current principals, who will help improve quality at colleges across the country. While principals will be appointed as national leaders, they bring the wider expertise of their colleges to the table: FE colleges are highly complex organisations.

I am sometimes asked by colleagues in the sector what differentiates the FEC team from Ofsted or the ESFA. While we work closely and have excellent relationships with both, I believe our role is distinctive. As a non-statutory group of FE and sixth-form college specialists, we assess and recommend improvement strategies and processes for colleges in sticky situations.

We combine support with strong and informed challenge and we are not afraid to recommend significant change if that is appropriate. Our expertise lies in governance, leadership and overall institutional viability and success, and we do a different job to Ofsted or the ESFA. We very much enjoy sharing best practice across the country and drawing on our experiences of improving colleges elsewhere.

I am thoroughly enjoying my third career, and providing a role model for the DWP’s “work longer” campaign. My team and I are very much looking forward to working with more senior staff to keep up the improvement in quality, financial sustainability and reputation of this fantastic sector.

Richard Atkins is FE commissioner