The government’s announcement of extra funding for FE is welcome, but the sector must ensure it is invested sustainably, says Richard Atkins as he sets out his office’s three key priorities for the new academic year

With everyone else in the sector, I was very pleased to read about the significant increase in FE funding in last week’s spending review. While using resources well is critical, ultimately the level of funding underpins our ability to employ excellent teachers and deliver for our students.

Within the Department for Education, there is real optimism about the future opportunities for colleges. Our new secretary of state is clear that improving technical education is an overriding priority for him. As a huge believer in the transformative effect of FE on the lives of learners, I welcome this renewed focus.

I and my FEC team are expecting another busy year supporting individual colleges to develop a sustainable and successful sector. My team now has three roles – to support colleges in improving to good and outstanding; to engage where there is a risk of failure either on quality or financial health; and to support ministers in feeding practitioner insight into policy-making.

We have recently taken big steps in the first area. The 80 colleges that participated in the recent Strategic College Improvement Fund (SCIF) programme have reported that it helped them to boost the quality of teaching and learning and encouraged meaningful collaboration that would not have happened otherwise. They have also raised aspirations and supported college-wide improvements in culture and leadership.

We have been supported in this work by outstanding sector leaders. National leaders of FE colleges (NLFEs) and national leaders of governance (NLGs) are in place to offer mentoring, encouragement and share best practice. We have received very positive feedback about their work. We will be recruiting further leaders this term and I want to encourage experienced chief executives/principals and chairs of good or outstanding colleges to apply. As a sector, it is essential that we learn from
each other.

The second area of work for my team is to visit colleges where risks have been identified, often following an Ofsted assessment or an analysis by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). I have also been pleased to see increasing numbers of colleges approaching us proactively, as leaders recognise that they need support.

Most frequently I and my team undertake a diagnostic assessment of the college’s strategy for improvement. We visited 33 colleges last year in this role. These visits usually produce supportive recommendations and enable colleges to access a wider range of advice – including NLFEs and NLGs. We conduct fewer of the more serious full intervention assessments than we do diagnostics; critical failures occur where leadership teams have allowed problems to fester and become crises.

Common factors lead to intervention, such as the lack of a sustainable, costed curriculum plan. There is a belief that problems can be put off by selling an asset, expecting that the college will secure an increased share of the learner market next year, or that funding rates will significantly increase. In some cases, there are hopes that entering a new or novel type of provision will bring in income.

The announcement around funding is welcome, and it will achieve most impact if it is invested as part of a costed curriculum plan within a sustainable long-term structure, not as a way of putting off necessary decisions. Colleges must be honest about problems and open about risks. Your local ESFA team, the FE commissioner team, NLFEs and NLGs are all there to help and work with you.

Colleges must be honest about problems and open about risks.

The new FE insolvency regime has been introduced and used for the first time this year. The objective is to protect learners and enable smooth transitions. My team has been heavily involved in the first case, working closely with the ESFA and the administrator, and our experience is that it will achieve these.

Nonetheless, it is an intensive, costly process, and the objective must be for colleges not to need it. In 2018-19 my team was involved in 20 solvent structural changes. An encouraging and increasing number of colleges have recognised that the best way to secure high-quality provision for learners is to have a facilitated structure and prospects appraisal (SPA), where my team can work with existing leadership to identify the best solution.

The third aspect of my role is to feed practitioner insight into policy. I chair the Principals Reference Group – seven of the most experienced and successful principals in the sector, selected through an open process – and the College Improvement Board, made up of a mix of senior civil servants and college principals/chief executives. Both of these boards have a role in feeding user insight into policy development. I am encouraged that the department shares thinking early and is keen to get expert input to ensure effective implementation.

Our own FEC team has just recruited three recent and experienced FE leaders to join us. Martin Sim has joined as a deputy FE commissioner, whilst Laraine Smith and Nigel Duncan will take up FE adviser roles. They replace John Hogg, Lynne Craig and Phil Frier who all stood down in July after five years’ excellent work.

I hope that your college has a stable, enjoyable and successful year. Colleges remain brilliant places to work because you are transforming the life chances of your learners every day. Creating a good or outstanding college while managing tight budgets requires governance and leadership of the highest quality, sometimes helped by a little luck! If your college is facing challenges, help is available and it is better to approach other colleges, the regulator or ourselves rather than hope that heroic leadership will carry you through.