College intervention regime resumes as AoC calls for post-Covid FE Commissioner ‘rethink’

The Association of Colleges is calling for a post-Covid-19 “rethink” of the sector’s intervention regime as the FE Commissioner resumes all “usual activity”.

Lead commissioner Richard Atkins (pictured) wrote to college bosses on June 16 to inform them that his team has recommenced its work on a virtual basis as they begin to welcome back more students following the coronavirus outbreak.

This includes intervention where there are cases causing “serious concern” to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, as well as diagnostic assessments and restarting ongoing structural reviews.

Association of Colleges deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt said there are a “small number” of colleges in “significant difficulty” so the plans of the FE commissioner to restart visits will be “helpful in some cases”.

But he added it is “clear” the intervention policy for colleges needs to change as the current regime was “designed for another time”.

He told FE Week: “What is clear though, is that the coronavirus crisis has reinforced our case that a rethink is needed about the way in which Department for Education, ESFA, the FE commissioner, Ofsted, Office for Students and other regulators oversee and work with colleges.

“The intervention policy and regime were designed for another time, and not for a sector which has been severely hit financially through no fault of its own.

“If we are to achieve the education secretary’s aim of a world class English technical education system then we need to see a sector-wide financial resilience plan in which every college can thrive educationally and be financially strong. We were a long way from that before the crisis, and now we are even further away.”

The FE Commissioner and his team paused most of their duties in March, around the same time that colleges closed to most students.

The only activity they have conducted since has been “confidential” support to any colleges struggling financially as a direct result of the pandemic.

In his letter to the sector, seen by FE Week, Atkins states that as colleges could recommence with some face-to-face provision from June 15, and are planning for full delivery in the autumn, “we will also resume our usual activity with colleges”.

“Initially we will arrange our formal meetings with college governors and leaders on a virtual basis, but I do hope that my team can begin visiting colleges again soon, albeit in a socially distanced way,” he added.

The recommencement of FE Commissioner activity comes before the restart of Ofsted inspections, which aren’t scheduled to be back fully until January 2021.

The watchdog did however announce yesterday that they will conduct “visits” to FE providers from September, but these will not be graded.

Audits are also currently paused for FE providers. The Department for Education told FE Week today that they are “reviewing our current position” on when to resume audits and “more information will be available in due course”.