College leaders have endorsed a move by the Education and Skills Funding Agency to rebuild relationships with annual “strategic conversations”.

The new meetings, which will get under way next month, have been described by principals as “helpful” and “much better than the current poor, reactive approach” taken by the ESFA.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the conversations will “help shift the focus in the agency away from the colleges they believe are in trouble to a more open discussion with all colleges”.

Announcing the meetings on Wednesday, the ESFA said the idea followed Dame Mary Ney’s review of financial oversight in colleges which recommended the agency builds a more “nurturing” relationship with the sector.

Ney’s report, published in July 2020, warned that dealings with colleges had become “largely focused on financial failure, which inhibits colleges being transparent with government”.

The ESFA said it will lead these new conversations, which must be attended by each college’s leaders including the principal and chair as well as an FE Commissioner official. They will begin as the current FE Commissioner Richard Atkins leaves his post at the end of March.

The meetings will “look holistically at the college’s strategy”, according to the agency, and will focus on “current and future plans that the college has and provide us with an opportunity to hear directly from colleges about their successful initiatives, as well as discussing risks and challenges, and possible solutions”.

The ESFA has insisted this is not another form of intervention. A spokesperson said they will not be a funding requirement and they “do not expect” to publish the outcomes of individual conversations.

The first of these voluntary conversations will start in the summer term, from late April 2021, the ESFA said, with the first full cycle completed by May 2022.

Meetings will be held either at colleges or virtually, depending upon Covid-19 restrictions.

The ESFA said the content of the agenda will be “jointly shaped with each college, and as the programme rolls out, we will be in touch to agree a meeting date with each college and to agree the agenda”.

Ian Pryce, chief executive of the Bedford College Group, said the meetings are “long overdue”.

“Proper meetings, preferably visits in future, are much better than the current poor, reactive approach to monitoring,” he added. “Relationships will improve, problems will be picked up earlier.”

Luke Rake, principal of Kingston Maurward College in Dorset, said the move seems “entirely sensible to me and fully endorse this. Proactive and forward-thinking meetings to ensure good solutions for students is helpful.”

Hughes said the meetings were a “good idea” as “we are keen to see more strategic engagement between ESFA and colleges, which ensures Dame Mary Ney’s ambition of a nurturing relationship as well as a vehicle for colleges to highlight barriers they face due to policy or funding rules”.

He added that including the chair in the meetings “makes sense, particularly as ESFA promises to make these meetings a two-way sharing of information and to distil key messages so that they can improve policy making, rules and regulations”.

John Laramy, principal at Exeter College, said: “I welcome the idea of a yearly ‘strategic’ conversation and hope this is the first step in forming a new partnership between colleges and the ESFA, as ultimately we all want the same thing ̶ brilliant colleges making a difference to individuals, businesses, our communities and ultimately UK plc.”

And Sam Parrett, chief executive of London South East Education Group, added: “It can only help improve the sector if the key organisations involved in the oversight, regulation and operational leadership of colleges meet regularly to discuss the complexities and challenges involved in running colleges in these challenging times.

“Transparency is key to ensuring that there is a line of sight from the data that is submitted in a transactional and contractual relationship to the discussion that builds trust and confidence in the system leaders and ensures there is a supportive relationship between the ESFA and colleges.”

The new conversations will involve all further education colleges, including specialist designated institutions, land-based colleges and sixth-form colleges.

Independent training providers are not included.

When asked why ITPs have been excluded, an ESFA spokesperson said: “ITPs by their nature are different from colleges, both in terms of their funding relationship with government and their business models.

“We are developing further our approach to working with ITPs and they continue to be a key part of the post-16 skills landscape.”

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