DfE launches £9m College Collaboration Fund to replace £15m Strategic College Improvement Fund

The education secretary Gavin Williamson is launching a new £9 million “collaboration” fund in a bid to improve governance and leadership at colleges which aren’t “getting it right”.

Bids of up to £500,000 can be submitted by groups of colleges to “share good practice and expertise”, but they will be required to stump up an extra 25 per cent in match funding between them.

The 12-month programme follows the Strategic College Improvement Fund – which ended last year after £12.3 million of the £15 million up for grabs was used to help 80 colleges rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ team up with better performing colleges.

Williamson told FE Week the new funding, which has partly come from the Treasury, is needed because there “have been examples where colleges haven’t been getting it right and things that we are not comfortable with have been going on”.

“We mustn’t forget that is a minority,” he added. “Where we have got good we want to make them excellent, where we have got average we want to make them good and then to excellent, and where we have poor we want to make sure that they are actually really achieving the very best on that.”

Recent cases of poor governance have led to high-profile and significant failings, including at Hadlow College, which became the first college to enter education administration last year.

Each application to the collaboration fund will need a “lead” college with at least a ‘good’ rating from Ofsted, and at least one other college with a grade three or four, or one that has ‘inadequate’ financial health. The maximum number of colleges allowed in each group is four.

Colleges are expected to apply with others within a shared geographic place, for example, the “same sub-regional level”.

Merged colleges without an Ofsted rating can still apply, as long as one of the two previous colleges meets the criteria.

Each proposed programme of work must address at least one of the fund’s three “quality improvement themes” identified by DfE: governance and leadership, financial and resource management, and quality of education.

Applications are invited for grants of a value up to £500,000 and a minimum value of £80,000.

The Department for Education’s guidance states that colleges are expected to contribute match funding equal to 25 per cent of the total grant applied for, split equally between all of the colleges in each group. “In-kind” costs will not be eligible.

The fund will have two application rounds throughout the 2020-21 financial year. Bid for the first round are open from today and will close on 8 April. The second round is due to open on 15 June.

As well as the collaboration fund, the DfE has said an additional £4.5 million will be invested in bespoke continuing professional development for college leaders.

It will be developed by the Education and Training Foundation in partnership with the Oxford Said Business School, The Chartered Institute of Accountants in England and Wales and the Association of Colleges.

The DfE said the programme will aim to provide FE leaders and governors with tailored support in a range of areas including strategic planning, finance and working with employers to address local and national skills needs.

Another £200,000 is set to go towards two governance pilots (full story here).

FE Commissioner Richard Atkins said that in order to be “successful”, colleges require “excellent governance and leadership provided by well trained and well supported chairs, governors, principals, clerks and leaders, so that learners can benefit from enrolling at great colleges”.

He added: “My team and I see examples of excellent practice during our visits across the country, but we also see examples of where support is needed if standards of governance and leadership are to improve.

“I am pleased that we will now have this expanded range of development opportunities to offer to colleges where we see this as necessary.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges said this package will “help colleges help themselves and each other – proper peer to peer support, developing the skills and knowledge of leaders and governors across the country to strengthen the great education colleges already provide”.