Government interventions can be tough, but they’re necessary if we want to create successful and sustainable colleges, says Anne Milton

I wanted to use this month’s column to share with you the work that the FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins, and his team of deputies are doing to champion and support the sector.

Almost eight out of ten colleges are now graded good or outstanding by Ofsted, which is a fantastic achievement. This couldn’t be achieved without the hard work and dedication of the many talented teachers, leaders and governors, for which I am extremely grateful.

A college is a multi-million-pound business and leading a college is a big and important challenge.

We set up the FE Commissioner’s office in 2013 because we wanted to make sure learners that are getting the high-quality education and training they deserve, and that colleges have the support they need.

The commissioner and his team are doing vital work with colleges right across the country, helping to strengthen leadership and governance, which is vital for a resilient FE sector.

I’m very pleased to see the number of colleges needing formal intervention has fallen and problems are being tackled far earlier. However, where a college is experiencing severe challenges it is only right that the commissioner intervenes. Thankfully, this is now only in a small number of cases.

When there are issues, though, they must take account of a wide range of views, including those of college staff and learners, before deciding what action to take to bring about rapid and sustainable improvements.

Colleges are an engine of social mobility and change lives

At the start of the last academic year, the FE Commissioner’s role was expanded with the introduction of “diagnostic assessments”, allowing the team to focus on early diagnosis and prevention rather than waiting until more serious problems have emerged.

They now have a stronger set of tools to speed up improvements. This includes our Strategic College Improvement Fund, which is driving up standards across the sector, and our National Leaders of Further Education and National Leaders of Governance programmes, which draw on the expertise and experience of some of the best FE leaders, governors and clerks to help other colleges to improve.

We are also seeing further progress in strengthening the long-term position of colleges through structural change, with several college mergers going ahead and more in the pipeline. This work has been supported by funding from the restructuring facility, with £470m of this funding approved at the end of January 2019.

I recognise mergers and interventions can be tough for all involved, but these changes are necessary if we want to create successful and sustainable colleges where staff want to work and students receive high quality education.

While the vast majority of colleges are run well, there will still be some colleges having difficulties. There will be a strengthened college intervention regime in place for FE and sixth-form colleges in April, which will make sure we can respond effectively to early signals of poor financial health and quality.

The commissioner and his team will continue to help with early diagnostic assessments, which enable them to broker support for colleges that are at risk from a quality and/or financial perspective. If a college is facing difficulty, please do talk to your ESFA territorial team contact as soon as possible to ensure that a robust assessment of the college’s position is made.

We understand there has been a lot of change and more is on the horizon. Colleges will need to keep adapting, but it is also an exciting time and a great opportunity for colleges to be part of this technical education transformation.

Since I became Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills I have been continually struck by the significant role colleges play. They are an engine of social mobility and change lives. They give people hope and the chance of a rewarding job, career and life ahead often when there was no hope before. Thank you for all you do.