Outline of a two-grade college leap to outstanding — with an ‘employment edge’

Judith Doyle inherited a grade three Ofsted-rated college in August 2013 and within eight months of her appointment inspectors dished out the same result again. But, picking up the gauntlet, she instigated a raft of changes that in July saw the college rated as outstanding.

I was proud and delighted to be made principal at Gateshead College in 2013, a college which at that time was graded by Ofsted as requiring improvement.

I relished the opportunity to build on the improvements that were already in evidence but equally recognised that turning things around would need focus, clarity, and ultimately a bit of backbone.

We used to effectively have a college that operated as two — work-based learning on one side and classroom-based learning on the other

Gateshead College had an impressive legacy of being a technical college; close to local business and close to its community.

At some point this got lost in translation, focus and delivery.

My primary goal became the delivery of a strategic transformation programme, starting with a shift in culture. Simplified, it was going back to what we always did best.

The priorities were having a relentless focus on quality improvement and a curriculum that suited market, employer and business needs. We could no longer afford to be distracted from this approach, however interesting or attractive new opportunities appeared to be.

Our first priority was our students [and our strategy] — to make them the most highly-prized in the jobs market, and to give them the best learning experience in a safe, nurturing and aspirational environment.

We aspired to give our students the ‘employment edge’ — a point that Ofsted recognised in its report. Our approach to safeguarding was also recognised as outstanding and we continue to review and improve beyond the current framework — we’d been working on the Prevent agenda for a number of years.

We restructured our college board; traditional structures made way for more dynamic, agile and focussed committees with a greater business representation. The support of my chair and board was very important to developing a clear strategy going forward.

My role was clear: to drive and lead — encourage, motivate and kick (a little). I had to communicate a vision, a clear sense of purpose to which all staff could engage every member of staff had to understand the part they had to play in delivering excellence for students.

We recognised the need to improve communications with all staff. Regular, more focussed team briefings were introduced to encourage and cascade communication in departments and there was an increased focus on informal communication. I used every opportunity to reinforce the message to all staff that if we delivered high quality, teaching, learning and assessment the rest would follow. It is our core business and we had to get that right.

Another huge internal shift was establishing a ‘one college’ approach to our business. We used to effectively have a college that operated as two — work-based learning on one side and classroom-based learning on the other.

There was a lack of a coherent sense of purpose and no real accountability as well as waste, duplication and lost opportunities.

We enhanced our management information systems and became far more rigorous about capturing and routinely analysing data. We now have extremely detailed and accessible information about every student’s achievement, progress and experience along with a range of performance data which is used this to make quick management decisions and early interventions.

Our links with the local and regional business community have always been important, but I set about strengthening these further by listening to employers and working with them to shape our curriculum and enhance students’ experience of work. We had proven our ability to be highly responsive to businesses, delivering many bespoke solutions, and could demonstrate the impact of this to the inspectors.

We have forged outstanding — and very meaningful — partnerships with regional organisations like the Confederation of British Industry, North East Chamber of Commerce, Entrepreneur’s Forum and our local enterprise partnership.

All of this is being achieved within a tough political and financial landscape, but we are working from a robust financial position to deliver on the government’s skills agenda.


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  1. Another great example of strategic transformation from ‘we’ve always done it that way’ to doing the job as it should be – congratulations Judith. Now for the 75% of FE & Skills, still operating in the past to the detriment of all concerned, particularly the students.