Ian Sackree – COO Protocol

In many ways, and by the sector’s standard 2015 has been a rather quiet year in FE. Yes, there has been ‘noise’ around the FE Commissioner’s work and his Area Based Review programme, and also a handful of higher profile headlines when some colleges have found either the academic or financial (or both) ‘going’ tough, but after that, not a lot really! I have been out and about during 2015, visiting c. 50 colleges large and small and enjoying some quality time with the sector’s senior leaders and in the majority of instances have seen very effective colleges, under calm and experienced leadership getting on with things – with an increasing focus on staying with the basics and trying to get the ‘firm base’ right to meet the future.


So what are my key reflections of FE in 2015?


  • Colleges have really struggled with the delivery of English and Maths, affecting many Ofsted reports. Seriously, who could possibly be surprised about that? This needs deeper governmental thinking and significantly more funding if we are to overturn such an obvious lack of prior attainment at Secondary level.


  • Many of the very high performing colleges have struggled to hold it together and maintain the ‘dizziest of heights’, with some falling back to Grade 2, others falling further and harder. With less money to buy ‘the polish’ and with the impact of Study Programmes, inc English and Maths, again should we really be surprised?


  • Ofsted has been busy; it seems that most Short Inspections have seen standards (usually ‘Good’) being maintained (Q. Is this short format sufficiently robust to draw the right conclusion?) – but there are some full inspection reports that have been issued that are so bad one wonders where governing bodies and senior teams start – particularly for those where no improvement appears to be the trend. Interestingly, governance and leadership, two previous strengths of the sector have come in for criticism in several Ofsted reports – and notably in the FE Commissioner’s Annual Report. Clearly, we must do better here, but with the flurry of activity overseas and the marauding drive into sponsoring Multi-Academy Trusts and UTC’s in 2012/13 – are we yet to read more corporate-governance related negativity arising from getting too involved in non-core business? Let’s hope not.


  • The Annual AoC Conference was very good, professionally delivered by AoC – but it is disappointing to lose Martin Doel OBE so soon afterwards; at this critical time FE could really do with his knowledge base (that admittedly has taken his tenure to build given that Martin was new to FE) driving the sector’s lobbying vehicle. Notwithstanding, I felt there were too many colleges missing from Birmingham – the stats may say otherwise in delegate headcount – but it seems to me that fewer colleges are attending, but possibly each bringing more delegates. Come on FE – this is only once a year and a senior person from every college should to be there!


  • Whilst at the Annual AoC Conerence, and particularly listening to Nick Boles MP (at least he turned up and faced the audience – but what is going through his mind that links PREVENT and radicalism to fewer, larger and more resilient colleges?) the penny dropped with me that FE lacks a ministerial champion. After the energetic and most committed days of John Hayes MP and the hopeful (if not always tangible) days of Matthew Hancock MP we now have an eternal pessimist who really doesn’t have any good news to share, and who (unrealistically in my view) feels that the sector can double its Apprenticeship market share in no time at all, without any pump-priming what-so-ever. Really, are we being set up to fail?


  • Finally, let’s talk about funding. Well, because of the hype, and the expectation ‘of the worst’ a CSR offering cash stability in both 16-18 and 19+ funding has been generally-well received, perhaps due to a general ‘sense of relief!’. As with most things however the devil is in the detail and with inflation on the move upwards again, coupled with some chunky payroll-related statutory increases there is potential for another 4-5% swing-gap to open up in colleges that are already hard-pressed to cope. Recruitment and retention of talented staff is already harder than ever, there are skills shortages in key areas and pay freezes (and even pay cuts) will continue to press this situation further.


What does 2016 hold for FE? My advice is to keep a watchful eye on a few big issues:


  • I write this a lot, but ‘cash is king’ in FE. There are some colleges that stock-piled it and can ride out operating deficits, but these are the minority. Most colleges must manage their cost base carefully and measure their income accurately (and often) in order to avoid a going concern risk, with all the criticism about governance and leadership that generally follows!


  • Deliver locally, deliver to the best of the college’s capacity, and secure repeat business. The further away you try and do business, the more inherent the risks. Collaboration is good, and may well be the way forward but in the short-term identify the market share that you can protect, and guard it!


  • Federations and mergers always come at great cost and can take several years to deliver benefits. Whatever you think the project will cost, add some more and lower the expectation! Larger organisations require more expensive people and bigger and better systems and there is plenty of evidence that suggests that releasing real savings (without significant upfront investment) from mergers is a challenge. Bolting two or more poor performing organisations together runs the risk of producing one large poor performing college, with inadequate systems….so proceed with caution and ensure that there is a very clear and jointly owned picture of what success looks like.


  • Beware quick wins, because these may well be already exhausted. HE and increased market share in Apprentices (remember Mr Boles would like us to double this, and quickly!) sound like growth areas – but the HE programmes and Apprentice Frameworks have to be sufficient in length and depth to attract volume. Too many colleges have simply failed to grow their narrow range of cheap (good value) HE programmes or develop their breadth of Apprentice Frameworks to really grow volume and to demonstrate expertise, and this lack of investment over the last three years may yet bite hard. Don’t let over-optimism in financial and curriculum plans provide a false sense of security that these ‘quick fixes’ are actually readily available.


  • Keep a close eye on global politics (including tension and conflict) and economics. The longer-range economic forecasts for China (for some years now the panacea to replace core SFA funding!) are not certain, and business relationships often remain informal and non-contracted, which is risky. Things are heating up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it seeks to build a coalition to defeat the Islamic State – this could quickly de-stabilise its education programme and other anticipated (hopeful) reforms. Further afield, it’s still proving difficult to extract earned surplus from India, and Western Africa quite frankly is proving to be a slow burn. I recommend that all Colleges operating in these spaces should develop a Plan B (including a possible exit strategy(s)) and to ensure that these income streams are not essential to the survival of the UK-based college.


  • Retain your best staff at a leadership, curriculum delivery and professional-support level. We all understand the FE Commissioner’s ‘back to basics’ mantra, including lower staffing costs, better utilisation, larger taught groups etc, but the answer really is about maintaining greater flexibility in your overall staff-base, as afforded by temporary/agency staffing pool(s).


Good luck for 2016, and of course please keep Protocol’s services in mind to help navigate some challenging times ahead.

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