Dr Fazal Dad: principal, Ofsted inspector and ex special constable

Reviving the fortunes of Blackburn College with a common touch

If you don’t offend people, you never make any changes

Dr Fazal Dad lives in a terraced house just 174 steps from his office at Blackburn College. The proximity reflects just how important it is for this chief executive to be at the heart of his campus community.

In his last job, as Walsall College’s deputy principal, he would get the bus to and from his home – despite owning a car. Even his close family questioned his logic.

“I used to say to them, I travel to work with the real people. I suppose that’s just me.”

Despite leaving school at 16 with just one O level (in metalwork), once Dad caught the learning bug, he couldn’t stop. He spent the next 36 years in part-time education, while climbing the career ladder in FE, which culminated in his PHD aged 50.

That workload came on top of being a police special constable for 18 years, a Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) reviewer for 15 years and an Ofsted inspector for the last five years.

The Principal of Blackburn College remains as grounded now as he ever was, making sure he uses all the local shops and getting to know what “really matters” to people. “I know what it feels like to be a Blackburnian.”

Dr Fazal Dad at Blackburn College

Doing the dirty work

But Fazal’s dedication to his community is matched by the high expectations he puts on his staff. He isn’t afraid to hold them to account when they fall short.

“If you don’t offend people, you never make any changes.”

Shortly after arriving at Blackburn College in January 2019, he had to make some unpopular decisions.

The previously ‘outstanding’ college had had two consecutive ‘requires improvement’ ratings and its finances were rocky. In 2019-20, Blackburn reported a yearly drop in its net assets from £11.8 million to £2.2 million, and had £12.3 million of long-term debt.

He arrived “with the remit of getting quality right”.

His “forensic systematic approach” involved “removing some colleagues” and bringing in “people with the right attitudes and behaviours”.

Covid hit Blackburn hard, with longer lockdowns than anywhere else.

Dad kept a close eye on standards throughout. For example, he would “randomly ring students up” to check that their teachers were doing their duty by keeping in touch with them.

He trimmed his workforce from 688 in 2019-20 to 550 in 2023. Dad believes principals “don’t get paid to do just the good things” or to “do the job from the back seat”.

He chastises some principals for “always handing out the presents at the awards”, but “not wanting to do the dirty work”.  He conducts “protected conversations” when they’re needed with staff himself.

But he’s also quick to stand up for colleagues when it’s called for.

A month after he arrived in Blackburn, the FE Commissioner was seeking “ammunition” to remove his board’s chair and vice chair. Dad objected as he felt no ill will towards them; “they were fantastic people”.

However, the commissioners made it clear that when they returned later that year, they expected the board to have new chairs. Dad relented but ensured they left with integrity and were thanked for their “years of hard work”.

It was “the most difficult challenge” he had to face in his career.

Dr Fazal Dad

Wake-up call

Dad credits his father [a foundry worker] and his mum [a housewife], both first-generation immigrants from Pakistan, with keeping him “level-headed”. “You appreciated whatever was on the table for tea.”

But as a teenager growing up in Birmingham, he was more into watching Liverpool Football Club play than applying himself academically.

His “wake-up call” came because his one O level meant he had to take a level two electrical engineering course at Dudley College of Technology, rather than a level three like his friends.

Dad is also an Ofsted inspector and was recently sent back to Dudley to inspect it. Walking down the same corridors he’d walked as a teen was an “ironic full circle”.

Dad did an electrical apprenticeship and has continued to sit exams regularly since then which he could use to grant him access to work on a construction site. However, he has not practised the trade for 30 years.

As an electrical apprentice, his geeky fascination with electrical regulations prompted him to “wrongly or rightly embarrass” colleagues on construction sites by quoting regulations at them.

Dr Fazal Dad

Superhuman work ethic

Dad was promoted to contract manager on construction sites, and in the evenings started teaching electrical engineering, maths and regulations at Walsall College. He also taught classes at Stourbridge College.

Those were the “good old days” of adult education.

“Car parks were rammed” most evenings with adult learners studying a “whole portfolio of qualifications”.

The classes were life-changing for many. He recalls one ex-student, a bricklayer who now runs his own electrical company.  He reflects how “very naïve” it is of the government to have cut the adult education budget for such programmes, “then complain years later that we have a workforce issue”.

After four years he secured a full-time teaching position at Stourbridge College where he spent the next 11 years, rising to head of construction and then assistant principal.

Doctor Dad

FE gave Dad a “lifeline”, and he still pinches himself sometimes over the fact he now has a PhD in middle management leadership in Further Education (as well as a CertEd and a Master’s in education).

So what drove him to spend all that time studying?

He wanted to “prove that I could learn at that level”. Plus, it was “great fun”.

He also volunteered as a special constable, rising to inspector ranking.

He recalls having to arrest a former student of his, which “couldn’t get any more embarrassing”.

The role helped with his “ability to communicate” with his students. It also taught him the need to “connect with people before you correct”.

He saw “parallels” between the criminal justice and education sectors, as “some individuals can exhaust the system. We don’t know what to do with them.”

Dr Fazal Dad when he was a special constable with his family

Many mergers

Dad has witnessed many mergers [and near mergers] throughout his career.

As deputy at Walsall College, it merged with the Walsall Adult Community College, then tried to merge with Rodbaston College. The deal went to the “nth degree” before the board “decided it was not going to invest in a college in Staffordshire”.

While he believes mergers are almost always financially driven, they “have to create a win-win situation”.

Blackburn pulled out of discussions about merging with nearby St Mary’s Catholic College in 2020 because it had no assets and a large deficit, which Dad was “not willing to accept”. St Mary’s, which was England’s smallest sixth-form college, closed for good in 2022.

The proudest moment in Dad’s career came when Walsall went from Ofsted ‘good’ to “straight grade ones” in 2013.

In the final feedback meeting with inspectors, he “just couldn’t look up” after becoming teary-eyed.  He went out and sat on a bench in the car park on his own for a while to take it in.

Five years later, just before joining Blackburn, Dad became an Ofsted inspector himself.

But being in that role means he puts even higher expectations on his own college.

When in 2022 Blackburn went from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, “everyone else was over the moon”. But Dad was disappointed. “To this day” he asks himself the “burning” question: “why didn’t you get it to grade one?”

Dr Fazal Dad

Healthy competition

Dad describes himself as having “relaunched” Blackburn in the last five years.

He says achievement rates were hovering in the 70s when he started – now it gets 90 per cent.

He launched a new A-level centre which has “worked a treat”, providing 23 subjects to 250 learners.

It puts the college in direct competition with local sixth forms for learners. “We now compete with the big boys on our patch,” he says jokingly.

But Dad is no stranger to competition; in the West Midlands, it was “dog eat dog” between colleges. “But you have to get on with your job.”

Blackburn also has a new hybrid and electric automotive training facility, one of only a handful in the country. It has revamped its construction facility, created a hospital ward in its university centre and now boasts a cyber security training unit set up to feed a pipeline of workers into the National Cyber Security Centre the government is opening in nearby Samlesbury.

It’s been “difficult” to recruit teachers because such IT sleuthing skills are in high demand.

Dad also secured £33 million from DfE towards the £36 million refurbishment of its listed technical college building, which stands proudly as one of the town’s architectural crown jewels.

It was key to Dad that with all the uncertainty about the future of qualifications and the skills agenda, its new rooms would have “built-in flexibility” to adapt to different courses and class sizes.

Blackburn students celebrating A Level results in 2021 with Dr Fazal Dad

Zero tolerance approach

Dad introduced the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme at Walsall and then at Blackburn and is a big fan of how it connects pupils from different qualifications and walks of life. Dad credits the scheme for “equipping our young people with a broader understanding around teamwork and problem-solving”.

He believes that such schemes are more needed than ever, against a backdrop of rising incidents of poor behaviour and mental health needs.

“Sometimes a college lecturer is the guardian, social worker, nurse and confidant, never mind the teacher, because of the challenge that individual is going through.”

Dad operates a zero-tolerance approach to drugs at Blackburn, as he has in his previous colleges.

He recalls in a previous role having “arguments” with his local police chief inspector for insisting on permanently excluding a student caught with cannabis. So far this academic year, he estimates having permanently excluded around 10 students.

He is concerned over how nowadays some public areas “reek of cannabis”, as if “almost we’ve accepted” the drug being smoked publicly. But he insists that “on my college grounds, I am responsible. The students know now – you have drugs at Blackburn College, you’re going home… you have to draw the line somewhere.”

The carved board with a message of gratitude from a former student of Dr Fazal Dad

Open door

The door to Dad’s office, which is next to the library at the heart of its campus, is “always open”. He sees himself as “old fashioned” in that he’s still “out on the door” from 8.30am welcoming students.

He shows me a board containing a message of gratitude, which a former student had carved in her native African homeland.

She gave it to Dad for helping her to “climb another ladder in education”.  After passing her level two in health and social care, she could not afford the BTEC extended diploma she had her sights set on. Her teachers pleaded with Dad to let her do it for free. As a “unique one-off”, he relented.

Now, the learner is in her final year studying midwifery at university.

Looking at the board still brings a tear to his eye.

His father was unable to educate himself in his lifetime but impressed upon him the value of education. It’s a lesson which stuck with him.

“He said, ‘son, your wife can run off. You can lose your car in an accident. But one thing you’ll never lose is education.”

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  1. Alan McShane

    For a person who has such a strong education ethic he did not practice this when closing down the popular Trade Union Education Centre at the college. Depriving working class adults of a vital resource that was crucial in training thousands of union and safety reps for over twenty years was given the chop.