Martin Sim

deputy FE commissioner and principal, City College Southampton

I’m like the Jolly Roger, I’m a pirate nicking all the great ideas

Martin Sim, deputy FE commissioner and now emergency principal at City College Southampton, has done some of the toughest troubleshooting gigs in the sector. He tells Jess Staufenberg why a ‘skull and crossbones’ approach keeps him buoyed up

When the FE commissioner’s team does an “intervention assessment” at a college, I can’t help imagining a lot of efficient suits frowning at the accounts.

But Martin Sim turns that image upside down. The cheerful deputy FE commissioner – currently on sabbatical from the £700-a-day role for his new post – has been parachuted in as the emergency principal for one of FE’s most concerning stories in recent years: City College Southampton. 

The college has been “three times the bridesmaid, never the bride”, as Sim puts it, in a series of failed mergers, first with Southampton Solent University, then Eastleigh College, then Itchen Sixth Form and Richard Taunton Sixth Form.

In July, former principal Sarah Stannard headed off to the Falkland Islands (having boldly criticised the ESFA’s handling of the situation) after a nine-year stint.

But more recently there has been hope. Just before Stannard’s departure, a three-way merger between City College Southampton, Eastleigh College and Fareham College in Hampshire was finally tabled. And now it’s Sim’s job to get it over the line.

As the man on the FE commissioner’s intervention team for the college, he knows (because his report in February this year shows it) that the college is surviving on £8 million of emergency ESFA money, which runs out next February.

But, despite being a former maths teacher, a hard-nosed numbers man Sim is not. Instead, he catches me off guard throughout our chat with a giant grin and penchant for a fabulous turn of phrase.

“I got Shank’s pony here and got wet,” he chuckles (leaving me like a true millennial to Google the phrase – turns out it means you’re walking). Today is his 41st enrolment day, he continues proudly – a seriously impressive stint in FE.

During that period, he has overseen the merger of Pendleton, Eccles and Salford colleges to form Salford City College, become interim principal at Gateway College in Leicester, then at Barnfield College in Bedfordshire, then Vision West Nottinghamshire College and then Nottingham College.

The FE commissioner’s office was obviously impressed, and bagged him for the deputy FEC role three years ago.

An ability to see the lighter side of life has probably helped. Phrases inspired by the Wizard of Oz, the Jolly Roger, Les Misérables and Isaac Newton roll out with a twinkle in his eye as he non-pompously explains his thinking.

Here are two sporting stories (he’s something of a fanatic) that give you a pretty good introduction to the two sides of Sim.

On the one hand, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. “Once in a pre-football match warm up, I took a chair onto the pitch, stuck it onto the penalty spot and sat on it.” When someone asked what on earth he was doing, he retorted: “‘I’ve got no intention of leaving the penalty area, and I don’t run about much these days!’” 

On the other hand, he likes serious analysis. “Cricket is fascinating. It’s the power of the team. You learn the analysis, the plan, the strategy. You learn the idea of risk.”

Alongside this positive yet analytical nature, Sim also learned resilience young. He jokes that he got it from his father, a fan of Bolton Wanderers FC (“if you can deal with watching my football team, you can deal with FE”).

A young Martin Sim

But Sim also lost his dad to a heart attack one Saturday morning when he was just nine – and was brought up an only child by his mother. 

Like the witty Lancashire man he is, he eschews any pity. “She brought me up fantastically. I don’t want to paint the picture of a poor disadvantaged person. You learn to take responsibility.”

It’s a characteristic he shares with further education. “FE should be called The Resilience Society,” he announces, with another fabulous turn of phrase. “The resilience, the creativity, the dedication that you see within all levels of FE.”

FE should be called The Resilience Society

One day, another sport-mad figure noticed Sim’s aptitudes and encouraged him into teaching. He had “drifted” into an electrical engineering degree at Bolton Institute of Technology (he quit after four weeks) and was working at a working men’s club. 

One day the cricketing chair had “a long conversation about life and ambition” with Sim and suggested teaching. “At the end of the day, you can’t drift through life, you’ve got to sort of use it,” he says. 

So, Sim trained as a maths teacher at the City of Manchester College of Higher Education, staying in Salford 33 years and rising to deputy principal at Pendleton College by 2010. This period formed his philosophy on FE, phrased in his own excellent way.

“You know in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy enters Munchkinland and it goes from black and white into colour?” he grins again. “That’s FE. At it’s best, it colourises people’s lives!

“You still get the odd Wicked Witch of the West. But it’s about kids who experience failure, and suddenly the light shines and there’s colour because they’re successful.”

Similarly, “Pendleton [College] went in one colour and came out another” during the merger. He learned a lot about change tactics from his then-principal, Michael Sheehan.

“You have to manage with a heart. There is a mantra, which I’m now using here at Southampton: ‘Learners come first, staff a close second.’ You must create a positive culture.”

Two more thought-provoking analogies follow.

“Is it Newton’s first law which says energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another?” Sim muses. “The risk of any change process is to use the positive energy without changing it into negative energy.”

Then: “You do have your Susan Boyle moments [the singer famous for her rendition of Les Misérables’ I Dreamed a Dream, which includes the lyrics ‘the tigers come at night’].”

You have your Susan Boyle moments, when the tigers come at night

“The sleepless nights,” continues Sim. “The hardest job any principal can do is sit someone down and say ‘we’re having to let you go’ and see the blood drain from their face. No one does it for sport.”

After Salford City College, he moved to Ofsted grade four Gateway College in Leicester in 2017, where he spent a year demonstrating “that growth is not essential, quality is essential. You can’t just try to get bums on seats.”

Ofsted found “reasonable progress” the same year when Sim handed it over (it’s now a grade 2). After this Sim tackled grade three Barnfield College in Luton in April 2018, with inspectors finding two areas of reasonable progress and two of insufficient progress in September the same year.

In October 2018, he arrived at the crisis unfolding at West Nottinghamshire College. This, he tells me, was a very tough gig.

“One of the hardest jobs I ever had to do was at West Notts,” he says (for anyone who hasn’t read FE Week, the former principal resigned in 2018 amid significant financial troubles, and Sim faced a £22.5 million debt, and about 220 people were made redundant).

“One of the most humbling experiences is when you talk to staff and go through the evidence, and staff thank you for telling them their jobs are at risk.”

But, he adds, “the quality was excellent, and it continued to be so through that difficult period.”

He then joined the FE commissioner’s team in September 2019, before a final stint as interim principal at Nottingham College from May 2021, which had faced strikes and a £47.2 million debt. Four months later Ofsted inspectors found reasonable progress in most areas. After leaving in June this year, it was off to City College Southampton.

It seems to be Sim’s capacity to spot brilliance amid chaos that makes him an effective trouble-shooter.

“I call it the skull and crossbones approach,” he grins wickedly. “I’m flying the Jolly Roger, I’m pirating, I’m nicking someone’s great idea.”

He refuses to be drawn on exactly what has gone wrong at City College Southampton, promising me he’s “not being evasive” but that it’s complex. 

Why, for instance, did the ESFA reject three proposed mergers – even withdrawing its support for the first one with Eastleigh College?

“There are many reasons mergers fail. If we had about three hours, I could probably have a go at explaining why,” Sim says, admitting a triple failure is an “extreme situation” which has badly impacted staff.

But one thing the college must do is “mythbusting”, he says. He doesn’t want to give the rumours “lip service” but an image overhaul is clearly needed.

This includes recognising the college’s strengths: its high proportion of ESOL learners and the fact GCSE passes have increased 10 per cent since before the pandemic. “I’m looking at a lot of good things.”

This positive attitude reflects a shift in approach at the FE commissioner’s office, according to Sim (whose contract at the office continues until the end of 2023).

“The proactive approach under the current commissioner [Shelagh Legrave] of active support is going the right way,” he says, pointing out interventions now dropping.

It’s true – only four colleges entered formal intervention in 2020-21, down from 13 in the previous year. But Legrave has also warned “the challenge is going to come in 2022-23”, when lower recruitment due to the pandemic could mean “income will be down”.

But for now, Sim “remains optimistic” about the new three-way merger proposal for City College Southampton. He adds the DfE, FEC and ESFA are “onboard and working proactively with us”.

It would be good if more principals could remain in post because the margins for running a college weren’t so tight. But given the circumstances, it seems we’re lucky to have pirating, Wizard-of-Oz admiring, Newtonian enthusiasts such as Sim to step in if needed.

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  1. The disadvantaged children of Southampton don’t need these jolly FE riddles, they need merged, funded Colleges.

    Hopefully a Sotonian PM with a privileged Winchester College private education can tempt DfE to do the obvious thing and merge the Southampton FE colleges into something sustainable which serves the underprivileged.

  2. Roger J

    Latest City College minutes; Quote:
    “The Safeguarding Lead Governor suggested a two-week shutdown at Christmas to ensure staff are not on site to reduce the cost in energy due to the major increase in energy bills. She asked for consideration to adding online teaching weeks to help reduce energy bills.”

    What’s the chances that the PM’s Winchester College will be considering shutdown to save energy costs?. And meanwhile, we learn a Deputy FE Comm gets £700 per day. Is it effective use of public funds?