I have a great job – getting out around the country and seeing some of the fantastic work further education colleges are doing to help people transform their lives, writes Richard Atkins.
Our colleges have a lot to be proud of. Eight out of 10 are now graded good or outstanding by Ofsted, and they are playing a pivotal role in addressing the nation’s skills shortages, boosting productivity and improving social mobility.
This couldn’t be achieved without the hard work and dedication of the many talented teachers and leaders who ensure that their learners get the best education possible. My role as FE Commissioner (FEC), along with my team, is to strengthen the leadership and governance of colleges, and help to ensure colleges are well run.
I’m pleased that the number of colleges needing formal intervention fell last year. However, we are still intervening in cases where colleges are seriously failing educationally or financially. I understand the concern felt by college staff and learners in these cases and my team take account of a wide range of views in making our recommendations. Our aim is always to bring about rapid and sustainable improvements.
At the start of the last academic year, the Government expanded the role of the FEC. This change has allowed us to focus on diagnosis, prevention and giving colleges the earlier support they need.
We also have a stronger set of tools to speed up improvement. This includes the Strategic College Improvement Fund (SCIF) to help drive up standards across the FE sector. Grants totalling over £7.5m have been awarded so far and a new application round launched on 8 February.
The SCIF is playing an important role alongside our National Leaders of Further Education (NLFE) and National Leaders of Governance (NLG) programmes, which draw on the expertise and experience of some of the best FE leaders, governors and clerks to help other colleges to improve.
We are also seeing further progress in strengthening the long-term position of colleges through structural change, with several mergers going ahead and more in the pipeline. I know that structural change will inevitably have an impact on staff, but these changes are needed to help create the successful and sustainable colleges where staff want to work.
As you know, the year ahead remains challenging. Apprenticeships reform, T Levels and the new insolvency regime mean that colleges need to keep adapting. But it is also an exciting time and a great opportunity for colleges to be part of this technical education transformation.
I am here to help provide colleges with the support they need, and I am strongly committed to ensuring the FE sector delivers high-quality education and training which benefits learners, employers and the wider community.
Richard Atkins is the Further Education Commissioner for England. He is a former principal of Exeter College and Yeovil College.