Reversing financial downward spiral

Carole Kitching reflects on her management team’s drive to improve its finances.

Lewisham Southwark College reported an operating deficit of £6.7m at the end of 2014/15, as identified [by FE Week in edition 168] from the published college accounts.

This figure has long been in the public domain as it was the key driver in the widely reported organisational review at the time.

While this review succeeded in reducing pay costs by a similar amount in the short term, recruitment shortfalls at the start of 2015-16 further reduced income and again started to drive up the pay to income ratio to above sector norms.

The college has continued to make interventions in-year to reduce cost again, while at the same time taking forward plans to grow income, the only really sustainable way to break this cycle.

What follows are some personal reflections on this journey.

The college has faced significant challenges over the past three or four years and there are great ongoing challenges in reversing the downward spiral the college has found itself in.

As is almost always the case, declining quality and declining finances combined to create a perfect storm.

My role, alongside the new permanent team is to reverse that decline.

Colleges have always coped with moving goalposts, but there are times when it feels the goalposts have been removed

At the centre of the strategy is restoring the college to the heart of its communities in Lewisham and in Southwark — rebuilding confidence with improvements in teaching and learning and relevance of curriculum and re-engaging with our students, employers, parents, community groups and, of course, our boroughs.

Two Ofsted monitoring visit reports in the past seven months have provided some external validation that we are making progress.

This is not an easy task, but a very rewarding one.

By earning the right to our improving reputation, we are building up student recruitment again, the lynchpin of any successful turnaround.

Pride, of staff in doing a great job and students in their achievements and in their college, are key ingredients.

The college recently won Training Provider of the Year 2016 and one of our apprentices Apprentice of the Year in the Creative and Cultural Skills Annual Awards and the boost to morale was humbling to witness.

Reversing the fortunes of a college such as Lewisham Southwark is not for the faint hearted.

The current climate is not supportive of even the most outstanding and financially robust colleges.

While it is absolutely right that there should be scrutiny and accountability of how public money is spent, the layers of intervention for colleges in difficulties are an industry in themselves.

It is a fine balance to take the right actions, make the right interventions, keep accelerating the pace of change and be able to report on this in detail and at length to different agencies.

There are no secrets about what makes for a successful and sustainable college, no holy grail to distract us.

A strong governing board, great teaching and training, a relevant curriculum, strong recruitment resulting in good class sizes, efficient and effective deployment of staff, decision making that is centred on student need and an organisation that works holistically, not in silos, is needed.

Colleges have always coped with moving goalposts, but there are times when it feels as though the goalposts have been removed altogether and perhaps even that scoring goals is no longer the sure-fire way to win the game.

Local area reviews are a chance to fix things and redefine the sector as something the government actually wants and needs, or our last chance saloon, depending on your viewpoint.

Radical change often requires radical solutions, challenging the orthodoxy of political intervention in order to secure the opportunity to transform the life chances of our students and communities.

If you are not prepared to stand up and speak out for the rights of your students you do not deserve the privilege of leading a college.


Carole Kitching is principal of Lewisham Southwark College

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