College collaboration is a gamechanger for driving improvement

30 May 2021, 6:00

Initial challenges to making best use of the College Collaboration Fund were tackled by both sides, write Rebecca Conroy and Sam Parrett

“Collaboration” brings to mind teamwork and shared goals.

This is what we were thinking of last year when London South East Colleges applied for a grant to work with East Sussex College Group from the Department for Education’s College Collaboration Fund.

The £9 million fund was introduced by the government in February 2020 in a bid to improve governance and leadership at colleges.

It followed the Strategic College Improvement Fund, which ended in 2019. Bids of up to £500,000 can be submitted by groups of colleges to “share good practice and expertise” over a 12-month programme.

As with all new relationships, we came up against challenges on the way, but managed to tackle them and achieved more than we had initially hoped.  

LSEC led the project and was awarded funding based on a comprehensive bid, focusing on four main areas: financial resilience, SEND quality, leadership and governance and digital transformation.

The DfE’s match funding requirement of 25 per cent was covered by LSEC, as we were confident the benefit of the project outweighed these initial costs.  

Throughout the project, we have delivered four virtual conferences around our selected workstream. We also developed digital transformation strategies for both colleges, established nine new online courses (focusing on healthcare, digital and warehousing) and collaborated with eight additional colleges to see what further lessons we could learn from them.

Both of our college groups are also on track to reduce costs for subcontracting to zero by the end of 2021-22 to ensure that we are meeting the specific needs of our communities.

We have packaged this programme into a college improvement framework called #ChangeMakers – a comprehensive resource we will share with the sector.  

An independent project manager was also recruited

But, as with any new venture, reaching these positive outcomes has required flexibility, lateral thinking and a common purpose.  

Initially, it was difficult for ESCG to find the time needed for staff to dedicate to the project. Focus was understandably on the day-to-day running of the college during a global pandemic!

However, we both understood that staff buy-in was crucial and people had to be supported in terms of their time and workload. So we used some of the funding to backfill some roles and free up other staff to commit fully to the partnership.     

An independent project manager was also recruited to facilitate conversations across both our colleges. This unbiased oversight proved invaluable by keeping us all on task.     

As CEOs, our positive relationship with each other from the outset also helped ensure that our teams were encouraged to work well together.

We were aware of potential resistance from staff to this new partnership and to the changes being suggested. However, we established a systemised leadership approach, which is about embedding processes you know work, delivered by the people on the ground who have tried and tested the techniques.

It also provided excellent CPD opportunities for staff

For instance, LSEC staff at all levels shared their experiences of what genuinely works for them in practice, while ESCG staff listened, asked questions and fed back. Both teams then came up with solutions together. The staff could see the real value of what we were trying to achieve and felt involved in making changes.

It also provided excellent CPD opportunities for LSEC staff, through mentoring and supporting others.  

Having to conduct the entire programme of work virtually had its limitations, particularly in relation to our special educational needs workstream.

LSEC’s expertise in this area has helped ESCG to develop a new and consistent offer across its sites – but owing to the pandemic, it was not possible for ESCG staff to visit LSEC’s facilities.  

We tackled this issue using virtual tour technology, which was adequate but not quite the same. With restrictions now easing, our teams are planning proper site visits.

Our strong college-to-college partnership and commitment of staff has been crucial – but in reality, the project would not have been a success without the funding.   

This model is a gamechanger for FE, facilitating real collaboration and harnessing the expertise and talent we know is widespread in our sector.


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