FE commissioner reflects on six months of change

Six months ago the FE commissioner embarked on a series of new initiatives designed to support colleges before they get into too much difficulty.

Using diagnostic assessments and peer-to-peer support, Richard Atkins aims to avoid a repeat of the high-profile college failures of recent months.

These new measures are all the more important, given the impending insolvency regime, which will allow colleges to go bust for the first time.

At the same time, both the restructuring facility, which provides cash for colleges to implement major changes, and exceptional financial support will be withdrawn.

In an exclusive interview with FE Week, Mr Atkins discusses what he and his expanded team of deputies and advisers have been doing to ensure that colleges are ready for the coming changes.

Interventions are down – but diagnostic assessments are up

The backbone of the FE commissioner’s work has always been interventions with failing colleges: those with an ‘inadequate’ rating either from Ofsted or for financial health.

Mr Atkins has begun formal involvement with just nine institutions in 2017/18, down from 18 the previous year.

At the same time, the team has also carried out 29 diagnostic assessments at colleges in difficulty but not yet failing, “which is more than I thought we’d do”.

These assessments are designed to sniff out areas for improvement before a college falls too far into difficulties.

“I think we’re having some success in getting to places a bit earlier, trying to provide advice, help and support to avoid a college slipping too far, too fast,” he says.

Of those colleges that have fallen into scope of intervention, “financial difficulty this year has been more frequently a cause than quality”. 

And, while the restructuring facility has “helped resolve the longstanding difficult cases” in the sector, it is likely that colleges will “occasionally get into difficulty” in the future and funding is still needed to “oil the wheels in these situations”.

Mergers, mergers, mergers

The surge in mergers is showing no signs of slowing down.

Last year there were 15, and “I would expect to see a similar number” this year.

These partnerships are “beyond area review”, and many have been brokered through an FE commissioner-led structure and prospects appraisal.

This process, which he has previously likened to “going to an introduction agency and having a courtship”, allows a college to thoroughly weigh up its options.

All of the 19 SPAs that he and his 15-strong team have led have ended with a proposal to merge.

It’s not just for failing colleges, either.

New guidance on the process, published last week by the Department for Education, “emphasises the point” that a SPA is “not only for colleges in intervention” but also for those who “come to us voluntarily” to consider their “strategic options”.

Principals’ reference group

Mr Atkins’ crack team of principals is already starting to have an impact at the DfE.

The team, which is designed to act as a sound board for Mr Atkins and to help shape policy, has met three times so far since it was formed in January.

They’ve been involved in consultations on T-levels, high needs and workforce development, and are set to get stuck into the internal review announced by Anne Milton earlier this year, looking at FE funding and resilience.

“I would say that most of the policy teams here in the department now see them as one of the key groups that they consult with,” he says.

Peer-to-peer support

The national leaders of FE programme, first announced last November, is one of the means by which Mr Atkins aims to encourage a culture of colleges supporting each other.

The names of the seven leaders were announced in January, and they’re all now working with at least one college.

They are “really critical to helping” at a college in difficulty, following an intervention or diagnostic assessment by his team.

Alongside this support for college leaders, a similar programme for governors is in the process of being set up, with the call for applications launched last week.

“I think it’s a really useful way for a chair, a board member or a member of a senior team to have a reference point,” he explains.

Strategic college improvement fund

Fourteen colleges received money from the pilot round of the strategic college improvement fund, which offers a tailored package of support.

These colleges are implementing a range of initiatives, including “developing better costed curriculum plans to quality improvement implementation practices, such as teaching observations”.

The main phase of the fund is expected to open for application very soon.

His overall aim with the fund and his other initiatives is to “try to avoid the catastrophe we’re seeing at the moment at one or two colleges” by supporting them at an earlier stage.