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The future of further education

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

In November, the Skills Commission published a report on the future of further education. Matt Atkinson, principal of City Bath College and chair of the inquiry, spoke to PSE.

Stronger inspection measures, greater accountability and the freedom to fail or flourish – the Skills Commission has analysed the impact of interventions in further education and set out a course for a clearer strategy for the industry.

Its new report, ‘The Move to Improve’, follows a six-month inquiry and calls for clarity from the government as well as a focus on ensuring quality of provision and greater self-scrutiny.

PSE spoke to the chair of the inquiry, Matt Atkinson, about the new landscape of further education and the need for early warning signals.

On your own

New freedoms introduced by the government have brought put responsibility onto providers on whether they “flourish or fail”, he said. “You are absolutely on your own.”

The new measures of intervention that come with this bring greater risks, but also offer higher potential gains. These mechanisms haven’t been tested out yet, which is what the report sought to address.

“If you look at the best providers, their board arrangements are really strong; you’ve got trustees who have good frameworks of in-house accountability.

“The question is, what does the system need to do to ensure those providers who aren’t very good are operating at a higher level?”

The Skills Commission has recommended a model where successful headteachers are used to support “coasting” providers to develop improvements.  A degree of simplification could also help to make lines of accountability clearer – the report has called for BIS to clarify who’s responsible for what in further education.

“As systems become more complex, how can we deliver really clear accountability?” Atkinson asked.

Intervention before failure

Earlier notice of struggling providers would allow regulators to identify and act on these risks “before it is too late”, he said.

“When we pinpointed specific cases of failure, regulators and others will always say ‘we saw it coming’. Because the state has backed away and is now more hands-off, intervention only occurs at the point of failure and not before the failure occurs.

“We need to be developing better early warning signals, so that boards of trustees or of governors can actually do their jobs properly and be truly accountable, just to prevent failure from happening.”

He warned that many regulators “have no teeth” until large-scale finance or quality failures become apparent, and only act from a risk-based point of view, using retrospective data.

“We see this suite of early warning indicators as being quite important.”

Boards should be scrutinising their provision and delivery of their core business much more, Atkinson added, and not just on the organisation’s financial performance.

Strategic governance

These governance roles require more than just community-based motivation; “they need to be much more strategic now,” Atkinson said.

Having strategic leads from housing associations and local authorities on college boards means the organisation can be more accountable to the communities that they serve, he added.

Compared to many areas of the public sector, most notably health, the report considers further education to be “ahead of the curve”.

Atkinson said: “We found the most effective kind of intervention is if you take an organisation that’s experienced failure, where a change of leadership or governance and really high quality leadership is introduced: that can have a significant impact.”

Crucially, the Skills Commission found benefits to keeping these management changes within the public sector. Atkinson explained: “We found lots of good examples of in-house intervention, and we saw that, where the intervention was in-house, then it actually led to sustained improvement.”

Questionable regulation

As for regulation, Ofsted is now moving into “the improvement arena”, something Atkinson described as questionable.

“We don’t know how effective that is; is an inspectorate entirely comfortable with that support and development role? Can Ofsted put a ‘Chinese wall’ between their inspection and support functions?”

The report recommends the regulator should publish an early evaluation report about the effectiveness of its support services as soon as possible.

A tougher approach is also recommended – Atkinson pointed out that allowing providers a second chance to shed their ‘requires improvement’ label could lead to long timescales of mediocre performance being “tolerated by the system”. It could be as much as 36 months before action is taken, allowing “three cohorts of students [to be] let down”.

“The rules need to be sharper around that,” he added.


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