Evans’ quality drive that took him from cars to Cornwall  

People-focused principal tells Shane Chowen that too much teaching is bad for teachers and a college’s bottom line

People-focused principal tells Shane Chowen that too much teaching is bad for teachers and a college’s bottom line

“If you focus on quality, the rest will sort itself out”, says John Evans, the outgoing chief executive of The Cornwall College Group, shortly after the Department for Education lifted his college out of intervention after eight years. 

It’s a guiding principle this principal keeps coming back to when he reflects on a college leadership career that started by heading up motor vehicle provision at Bridgwater College nearly 35 years ago. 

His focus on “the product” and “the customer” has led to three ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspections at three colleges and revived the fortunes of The Cornwall College Group with stabilised finances and a repaired relationship with the county’s residents.

But it hasn’t been easy. 

By the time Evans made the move from Yeovil College to Cornwall in 2019, he was the third principal since Amarjit Basi resigned just after the college was placed in intervention over its finances. 

Cornwall’s staff had “had enough” and “too many people had not had a great experience” with the college. “There were buses taking students everywhere else”, Evans says, with staff jumping ship to neighbouring colleges.

A financial health intervention in 2016 and a damning report a year later pointed to high debt servicing costs being a “major drain on cash”, exceptional financial support payments from the government needed for working capital and breaches to loan covenants. 

Officials from the DfE and the FE Commissioner were all over the college imposing strict conditions in return for £30 million “fresh start” bailout funding. 

If you focus on quality, the money will follow

A few months before Evans joined, the college was downgraded to ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted and an FE Commissioner-led review of post-16 provision in Cornwall had been published, pushing for a merger with Truro & Penwith College (which never materialised). 

He says: “People in Cornwall needed something better. I’m passionate about change and getting it right for young people. We had this constant decline of, how do we save money? But at some point you have to break out of that cycle. If you focus on quality, the money will follow. You’ve got to be brave to make that decision when you haven’t got any money.”

There are many ways that Evans is an unusual college leader. 

He’s stayed in his home region, even his hometown of Bridgwater, throughout his leadership career which shows how deeply invested he is in the southwest. 

For someone brought in to recover a college once on the verge of financial ruin, he is unapologetic about his passion for teaching, rather than spreadsheets.

During our interview, I feel I’m sat opposite an educator running an education institution, and I needed little convincing that this gave him the currency and credibility to bring Cornwall’s battered staff with him when he took the reins in 2019. 

Evans is also rare in that he must be one of a handful of college principals who started their technical education career as an apprentice.

And as someone who worked as and trained mechanics… he drives a Tesla.

Technical principals

Some people can pinpoint a moment, an event or a conversation that changes the trajectory of their life in an unexpected way. 

For Evans, it was a moped that kept breaking down.

“I was brought up in a family corner shop and I think everyone assumed I would just go into retail,” he recalls. 

Working as a trainee manager at Sainsbury’s, he became “fascinated” with how to repair that moped. A garage opposite was recruiting for an apprentice and Evans got the job. 

He loved it so much he stayed for seven years, but recalls watching his lecturers during training and thinking “what a fantastic job that must be”.

After a year’s teacher training at Garnett College in London, he got his first motor vehicle teaching job at Farnborough College of Technology where he stayed for four years. 

Asked if he would make the same decision to teach in FE today, Evans said it would be a “much more difficult decision”.

We’re paying less and relying a lot on goodwill

It was an “easy choice” in 1984 because “the salaries were more than you would get in industry” and the “conditions of service with the silver book were a lot better”.

The silver book (apparently named after the silvery-grey clip that held together its 94 A5 pages) of nationally agreed salaries and employment conditions for FE lecturers was in place from 1975 until the early 1990s when colleges came out of local authority control. Some argue that abandoning the silver book led to the decline in lecturer pay and conditions that has contributed to the sector’s teacher shortages. 

“We are now paying significantly less than anybody out in industry and we rely a lot on goodwill and people wanting to give back. It’s a much more difficult conversation today.”

It makes me wonder whether Evans’ path to principalship, from industry to lecturer then up the college ranks, is even possible anymore. 

Road to Cornwall

Bridgwater College beckoned and after a few more years of teaching, Evans was made head of motor vehicle, engineering and construction, simultaneously growing the motor vehicle department and achieving his first ‘outstanding’ from inspectors. 

“At the time we had four motor vehicle lecturers. When I left we had 31 lecturers and 1,400 students coming from all over the country. It was just massive. If you get the product right, because we’re a people business, it’s the same as any market forces. People will come.”

Evans spent 14 years at Bridgwater, seeing through incorporation and the turn of the millennium. 

His next role, head of technology at South Devon College, taught him “there were different ways of doing things without having to spend money” – setting him up, although not known to him at the time of course, for what was to come later at Cornwall. 

South Devon’s 2002 inspection report described its provision as ‘inadequate’ with six of the fourteen inspected curriculum areas rated ‘unsatisfactory’ as well as leadership and management. 

Evans as Yeovil College principal

If you get the product right, people will come

Evans joined the college in 2003 and describes this role as “starting a new college from scratch”. A “great grounding” from the leaders he worked with at Bridgwater helped him and the new team at South Devon score top ‘outstanding’ grades at its next full inspection in 2008. 

Next came five years at Swindon College as vice principal curriculum and quality, taking the college from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘outstanding’, and becoming an Ofsted inspector himself, before taking the leap to principalship at Yeovil College. 

Cutting for quality

Evans’ time at Yeovil between 2014 and 2019 “is very close to my heart” but was a “slight disappointment” in that the college “only” improved to ‘good’ on his watch from the ‘satisfactory’ he inherited. 

He says he “always wanted to finish at City of Bristol College or Cornwall College, because both of them had been problem childs for a long time in the south west and I wanted to finish with a big one”.

From his office in Yeovil, Evans could see what was unfolding 130 miles away at Cornwall College. 

One of the bailout conditions on Cornwall was that the FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins at the time, had a say in who the next Cornwall principal would be. 

But if Evans had plans for the fresh-start cash once he got the job, he’d have been disappointed. 

“You get fresh start, you give the college £30 million, of which £20 million is debt admittedly, but there’s £10 million to spend, and you give it to the same senior team to spend it? So by the time I got here, that’s gone with no discernible change.”

Evans got to work before he officially started at Cornwall, touring the college’s campuses in the summer before his October start to meet staff and introduce his ‘challenge 90’ initiative to get attendance, pass rates and retention all at 90 per cent. Achievement rates were 71 per cent the year before he joined. 

Then it was time for the hard yards. 

There were rows with an MP over dropping A Levels in St Austell, a controversial campus closure in Saltash affecting around 500 students, and a phased 40 per cent drop in staff FTE from 1,600 to 956. 

The college itself is spread across 113 miles with seven campuses, two zoos, two equine centres, three farms, Golf academies in Spain and Portugal plus training sites at the Eden Project and the Falmouth Marine School. 

Evans says: “It’s a myth you cannot reduce the cost base and improve the organisation, it has worked every time!”.

“I said two things when I arrived to the staff: you teach too much, and we teach too much.”

Evans at colleges Eden Project centre

Average learning hours were around the 880 mark, he says. “What happens in colleges, especially when driven by finance people, is contact time starts shooting up. I have this philosophy where anything above 828 and your quality will go down. Even 828 – 23 hours a week – doing it properly, good or better, is close to impossible.”

Some courses, he says, were teaching hundreds of extra unfunded hours “and no one really knew because MIS was so poor. We were just giving it away”.

But the tough message for staff was this: “Yes, you’re going to teach less. But there’s going to be a lot less of you.”

Staff were “desperate for somebody to follow that they believed in” following years of intervention and bad press over large payouts for former leaders. 

The culture shift at Cornwall College was rapid and profound. 

“Actually, culture changed really quickly. I think whoever would have come in that had a clear vision they believed in, the staff would have followed. Because they’d had enough. Staff saw I took pride and enjoyment in rolling up my sleeves and pitching in directly with improving teaching & learning, with estates, painting walls, with manning marketing stalls,” Evans explains. 

Governors “backed me 100 per cent” he says. Their faith in him was reflected recently in the way he treats his senior team. 

His deputy Kate Wills resigned last year having been appointed to the top job at Weston College. But the job offer was mysteriously withdrawn shortly after. Even though Evans had already filled Wills’ post at Cornwall by then, he took her back. 

He reflects on his journey with a sense of accomplishment and no regrets. 

Cornwall’s inspection grade was improved to ‘good’ in 2022 and its government notice to improve was finally lifted after eight years in May. 

Evans is now handing over to former Exeter College deputy CEO, Rob Bosworth, but wants to carry on training teachers through his teaching and learning conferences, albeit at his own pace.

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