7 ways to challenge college culture and get back to ‘good’

28 May 2022, 6:00

In 2019 I left higher education to become chief executive of the UK’s biggest national FE college group, comprising seven colleges.

The year previously, Ofsted had downgraded NCG to ‘requires improvement’. A significant step change was required for the colleges all to reach the threshold for a ‘good’ grade.

NCG’s two challenges were sustainable financial stability and quality improvement. Firstly, we had to stop being seven colleges plus a centre, and become “one NCG”.

We then had to undertake a quality, learner-led journey towards Ofsted’s 2022 judgment of ‘good’.

Here are my 7 key lessons from that journey.

1. Clarity of purpose

Why are we doing what we do?

First, we designed a “strategy towards 2030”, through wide consultation about our mission, vision and values. This strategy underpins every decision – all business planning must contribute to the strategy’s delivery, and all colleagues must “own” the strategy.

2. Visibility of leadership

All seven college principals joined the college executive group to raise the visibility of leadership.

To become “one NCG” we had to understand that the core business of education happens in college, so college leadership must be part of the leadership of the group.

Consistent standards, expectations, alignment to the strategy, vision and values, had to be seen in the behaviours of the leadership group-wide at every opportunity. And so, the concept of “one NCG” became reality.

3. Clear, two-way communication

Sustainable cultural change across a large, dispersed group requires clear, consistent and two-way communication. Videos, town hall meetings (ironically, made easier by Covid and Microsoft Teams), regularly updated FAQ lists, and progress updates all contributed to “one NCG”, and ultimately one ‘good’ NCG.

During our Ofsted inspection, update communications were shared in near real time.

4. Building up willingness to change

A willingness to change was a vital cultural shift for moving us to ‘good’. Strong leadership, consistent communication and clarity of purpose reinforced the ambition to prove to Ofsted that we were now a learning organisation with the prerequisites for a ‘good’ judgment.

During the two years before inspection, a willingness to change evolved group-wide from an ambition to succeed.

5. Collaboration

A key element of “one NCG”, essential to achieving our Ofsted judgment, was collaboration. Covid created the opportunity to work across the geography – frequently meeting remotely to manage the pandemic, then to discuss policy change and the white papers, managing financial challenge and, critically, preparing for inspection together.

Every college wrote a student aid report (SAR); colleagues from other colleges and professional services became critical friends; the final versions formed the basis of our group SAR and this proved critical for a single judgment.

6. Communities of best practice

A tangible outcome from collaboration was the emergence of communities of best practice.

A huge benefit of being a large national group is our talent pool of varied experience and understanding of the differences between delivering education in inner cities, in rural communities, in areas of high deprivation or where there is dense industry.

This talent pool created virtual, group-wide communities of best practice, supporting teaching enhancement, good mental health, subject specifics and functional skills improvements. They showed Ofsted our consistent approach to quality enhancement and student-first teaching and assessment.

7. Shared ownership and accountability

Clear vision, collaboration and communication led to group-wide shared ownership and accountability for our actions. This led to shared success when Ofsted judged our provision to be ‘good’.

The biggest lesson NCG has learned throughout the last two and a half years is that to be “one NCG” we have to work together. Then we can celebrate together!

This was my first experience of Ofsted; I hope it will not be my last. “One NCG” was the basis for collaboration in all areas across our inspection, and we will build on this to move from good to ‘ambitious for outstanding’!

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