Six colleges entered formal intervention last year, according to the FE Commissioner’s (FEC) latest annual report.
But Shelagh Legrave’s annual stocktake of the sector is unusually silent on the major issues facing the college sector.
Previous reports have highlighted the FEC’s key concerns about the issues affecting college performance. For example, last year’s report flagged a lack of staff to deliver T Levels and college support services, poor oversight of subcontracting, cyber-security risks and the impact of inflation on college finances.
This year’s report, which covers Legrave and her team’s work between August 2022 and July 2023, speaks of “a great year” for the college sector despite warnings from other regulators that under-funding and staff recruitment challenges were negatively impacting learners.
This much more upbeat report was deliberate, Legrave told FE Week, because she believes the sector is in a better position financially.
“It was deliberate in so far as I think funding-wise, we’ve moved forward, which is great. It’s never going to be enough, but there was a settlement in the summer which I’m absolutely delighted with.”
It comes in the week the Institute for Fiscal Studies published its annual report on education spending which highlighted how spending per college student in 2024/25 will still be about 10 per cent below 2010/11 levels despite extra government funding.
Legrave said that cyber-security “remains a threat,” the use of subcontracting is “really reducing” and there will “always be challenges around governance”.
These issues have instead, Legrave claimed, been discussed with colleges at the annual strategic conversations and it her termly letter to college leaders.
Legrave told FE Week: “I have used that mechanism to talk about the specifics. My overall view is colleges are in a stronger place than they were, they are working really closely with employers, they’re growing their numbers of apprenticeships and delivering on government priorities.”
Colleges were reclassified as public sector organisations in November 2022, during the year this annual report covers. The move brought in immediate new controls on college borrowing and new rules on seeking approval for high-paid senior roles and “contentious and novel” transactions, which bring colleges in line with public sector Managing Public Money guidance.
Despite not making it into her final report – “I have talked about this elsewhere” – Legrave said, “the biggest problem at the moment is Managing Public Money because of the lack of loans, particularly for colleges that have grown substantially in September”.
“Most colleges are in a good place, I think,” she said.
The annual report details the work of the FE Commissioner’s office, which includes eight deputy FE commissioners, 13 FE advisers, 11 national leaders of governance and ten national leaders of further education.
Legrave reiterated her personal “key performance indicators” which were outlined in her speech at last month’s Association of Colleges annual conference, and included helping colleges increase the number of apprenticeships by 10 per cent and growing the number of skills bootcamp participants by 25 per cent.
As of July 31, 2023, there were 15 colleges in intervention, up one from last year. During the year five colleges exited intervention, meaning that six entered.
The only intervention report published by the commissioner during that year was for Ruskin College, which praised college leaders for taking swift action to improve its safeguarding procedures following an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection.
One college was dissolved in the year. St Mary’s College Blackburn became the third college to go through the college insolvency regime in October 2022 after failing to find a viable merger partner.
The report lists the merger of Central Bedfordshire College with The Bedford College Group, the merger of Greater Brighton Metropolitan College with Chichester College Group and the formation of the South Hampshire College Group as outcomes of FEC-led structure and prospect appraisal outcomes during the year.
Another structure and prospects appraisal was started, but the college withdrew, according to the report.
The FEC team “supported” 80 principals, chief executives and governing bodies during the year, up from 52 the year before.
Legrave also hailed the success of the first rollout of curriculum efficiency and financial sustainability reviews, where experts advise colleges on curriculum cost savings and financial planning. An early evaluation indicates that the reviews have saved participating 35 colleges between £250,000 and £1.2 million.
A recruitment round will be launched early next year for new FE advisers with expertise in apprenticeships and land-based education.
Addressing long-held diversity gaps in the FEC team, the report said: “The FE Commissioner hopes to increase the diversity within the team to more accurately represent the FE sector, and would particularly encourage applications from those who identify with characteristics which are currently underrepresented within the team.”