In her first interview since becoming FE Commissioner, Shelagh Legrave insists that support, not intimidation, will be the keynote of her tenure, and discusses the impact of Covid and the need for greater diversity in college leadership. Billy Camden reports
The new FE Commissioner is on a mission to change the college sector’s perception of the role from one of fear to one of support.
But Shelagh Legrave has also warned she will not be scared to have those “harsh” conversations when colleges run into trouble – asserting there will continue to be dismissals in rare cases where leadership loses its credibility.
“Some leaders do some really silly things, so there will always be consequences,” she said.
Legrave was speaking to FE Week in her first interview in post as the new permanent FE Commissioner.
She took the reins on October 1 from Frances Wadsworth, who has held the role in the interim period following Richard Atkins’ departure in March.
Legrave comes into the role from being chief executive of one of England’s large college groups – Chichester College Group. She is also a former accountant.
Her appointment was announced eight months ago and received a warm yet cautious welcome from colleagues. “I hope I never see you in my college”, is how some reacted, she says. “So there is undoubtedly a perception that we are there for intervention only and that’s something we’re very keen to change. It shouldn’t be a fearful conversation.”
Atkins’ four-year tenure was seen as adversarial by many. His visits were sometimes followed by the departure of principals and chairs, with his no-nonsense approach dividing the sector’s opinion.
Legrave is aiming to leave a different legacy. “The FE Commissioner is there to support the sector. Yes, it has an intervention role, but support is my focus.
“Inevitably if you’re a college in intervention and have needed a cash injection, there are consequences that come with that, and I can’t change that. But I am keen that people see me as somebody who has run a large college group, who’s got significant years’ experience of doing that, who knows the challenges they are facing.”
Her message to those needing help is: “Come and work with me and my team. We offer support to the sector, not just to colleges who are in intervention.”
The goal is in line with Dame Mary Ney’s landmark review of college financial oversight which said the Department for Education and FE Commissioner needed to shift to “nurturing and supporting” all colleges on an individual basis to spot early signs of weakness.
And this is exactly the commissioner’s goal: to switch from reactive to proactive intervention.
Legrave is starting at an unusual time – in the aftermath of a pandemic that has reportedly exacerbated the college sector’s financial fragility.
But you would be forgiven for challenging this rhetoric, considering there has only been one FE Commissioner intervention report published in 2021.
Legrave says this is simply because no colleges have entered formal intervention this year. There were 35 colleges in formal intervention as of July 2020 – the commissioner couldn’t say what the current number was, but did say it was “lower”.
When challenged on how this could be the case considering the financial strain of Covid, particularly on colleges with large volumes of adult education and commercial activity, she explains: “Covid has been a disrupter from that perspective. I suspect that for a lot of colleges, they managed to save on their non-pay expenditure. And of course, we know Ofsted inspections, one of the main triggers for formal intervention, were paused.
“I also think that the financial information being collected on colleges has shifted to focus more on cash and enables us to know a bit more quickly if there’s a problem and to try and support at an early stage.”
In March 2020 Atkins did tell the sector that formal intervention would not be triggered if colleges seek assistance from the FE Commissioner because of financial troubles relating solely to the pandemic.
Asked whether she had seen any evidence of colleges hiding behind Covid as an excuse for their financial difficulty, Legrave said, “I absolutely haven’t seen any evidence of that.”
She adds that is “impossible to say” whether the return of Ofsted inspections this term will result in a spike in formal intervention cases.
Legrave also insists transparency around intervention reports is not being watered down and they will publish the reports as and when they’re needed.
But she does, as an accountant, “find it very difficult to understand” how colleges “just run out of cash”, which has happened in several cases in the past.
“Surely you know you’re about to run out of cash,” she adds, before conceding there could be a raft of complex reasons for it.
“Some have spent money on capital projects without realising their capital project wasn’t necessarily affordable. Sometimes something changes in their locality, schools open different sixth forms, or the competition becomes more difficult etc. Some are also possibly too small to be able to afford the overheads that they’re having to suffer.”
Ney’s report warned that while there has been a downward trend in the total number of colleges in intervention in recent years, the overall profile of fragility of financial standing of colleges “remains alarming”.
Legrave says the sector “continues to be fragile” and warns this will remain until there is a funding increase to the 16-to-19 base rate. The rate currently sits at £4,188 per student and has only been increased once since 2010.
Atkins oversaw the first college – Hadlow – to go through the education administration process in 2019, a moment he said was his worst as FE Commissioner.
Legrave said she “couldn’t comment” on whether any others are currently close to going insolvent, pressing that “lessons have been learned” from the first case, which is estimated to cost over £60 million.
But asked whether government officials were now hesitant to use the tool, she said: “I haven’t picked that up. I think that education administration is there and will be used again if it becomes necessary. I just hope we don’t have to do it very often.”
Another key issue Legrave wants to tackle is the diversity of the FE Commissioner’s team. There are no black, Asian or minority ethnic representatives in the national leaders of FE or governance roster.
It is something that concerns the commissioner, but she regretfully insists it is “reflective of the small number of BAME leaders in the sector”.
“I fully believe in diversity. I think it is really sad that we haven’t got as diverse in our leadership in FE as we should have. And I will certainly work with everybody to try and ensure that there is a greater diversity.”