Lord Agnew: I will not hesitate to step in on college spending

27 Sep 2019, 5:00

Education minister Lord Agnew has in recent weeks had his brief widened beyond schools to include financial oversight of colleges. In this, his first article on FE, he sets out why good governance is key to a thriving sector making good use of tax-payers money and the support that is available to colleges struggling

One thing that comes pretty close to a cast-iron guarantee in life is that if you don’t have good governance -whether you are making widgets, running a multinational company, or the corner shop –  you will trip up sooner or later.

The need for good governance is one of those self-evident truths that I have become more than a little evangelical about. Get the basics right and you can become as successful as your ambition or vision takes you. If you don’t, you won’t; it’s as simple as that.  

Further education is a big priority for this government. The prime minister, the education secretary and the chancellor of the exchequer have all made this clear. We’ve recently announced an extra £400 million for colleges and sixth forms next year – the single biggest annual boost since 2010. 

I will not be turning a blind eye to unjustified and disproportionate pay

Good governance is absolutely crucial in ensuring that this investment is not wasted and that the FE sector grows and flourishes in the way that we all wish it to.   

Despite some recent changes in the education department, I want to reassure you that it is still business as usual, with FE financial accountability falling under my remit. 

I will be working alongside you to empower and strengthen the sector. One of the best ways to do that is to encourage you to look at everything through the prism of good governance so that all colleges become financially resilient. 

There are plenty of fantastic governors and leaders who have a wealth of skills and experience. But this will not always be the case. We need to make sure that all colleges have the financial management capabilities needed to keep  their institutions running smoothly and efficiently. I will be working with the sector to ensure that this happens and that college leaders treat taxpayers’ money with care and in a way that benefits their students. 

Balancing the books is a challenge for any organisation. Many colleges are already working hard to do this and to curb excessive costs, especially senior staff salaries. However, in the rare circumstances when this does not happen, I will not hesitate to step in. I will not, for instance, be turning a blind eye to unjustified and disproportionate pay.

We already have a support network to help the sector lay sound foundations of good governance. The National Leaders of Further Education and National Leaders of Governance programmes draw on the expertise and experience of some of the best FE leaders, governors and clerks to help other colleges to improve. 

These programmes have made a real difference but they could help many more colleges. We will shortly be launching an exercise to recruit more members, and I would encourage more principals and chairs to consider the benefits that the programmes offer.

We want to help any college that is struggling with financial or quality issues to get themselves back on track. We want every student to be confident that the education they receive is of the highest standard and that the college they attend is well run. 

Our recently updated College Oversight guidance is a one-stop document for FE and sixth form colleges, which sets out how we will work with colleges to identify issues early on, before they become serious. Its aim is to inform colleges about the range of support available, including from the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the FE Commissioner. Where problems persist, the guidance outlines how and when we will intervene. For extreme cases, it details how the insolvency regime will work. 

Colleges quite rightly have many freedoms. But freedoms bring responsibility; not only to the students and staff, but to the taxpayers who fund them.  I am here to help provide colleges with the support they need to deliver high quality education and training, and I am committed 100 per cent to doing that.

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  1. I.Ron pyrites

    Good governance can only go so far in enabling a stable FE institution. I would respectfully point out to his lordship that years of funding standstill (ie annual cuts), has been far more damaging than dodgy governance. The increase is welcome but it needs to be sustained for the medium and long term. When that happens, I think he will find financial stability return to FE.