To lose one college principal may be seen as misfortune. To lose three seems like carelessness.

Somehow ‘canaries in the coalmine’ doesn’t seem the right term to use for the high achieving Principals of major colleges but there is no doubt that the departure in quick succession of the leaders of three of the largest colleges in England is a clear signal that there are a number of issues in the current unstable world of FE. Newcastle College Group is the latest to lose its Chief Executive following closely after resignations at West Notts and Birmingham Met.  Last year huge colleges in Hull and Sheffield had the same experience and before that there were similar problems at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London, Lewisham and many others. So what is behind this?

Firstly it’s important to note that these colleges were not ones that resisted the current government agenda; rather they were ones which wholeheartedly embraced the vision of large regional colleges, achieving economies by operating over multiple sites.  Most had been members of the 157 Group (now Collab Group) enthusiastically advocating and adopting new business models and a more entrepreneurial approach to the delivery of FE.  They were the vanguard, not the rear-guard; so why did it not work out?

This attrition of senior leaders has prompted Ian Pryce, Principal at Bedford College, to wonder whether Enoch Powell’s dictum that ‘all political careers end in failure’ should apply equally to college Principals. His tweet reminded me that when, during the 1980s I led a series of study tours to US Community Colleges, we learned that college leaders there ‘enjoyed’ (if that is the right word) both much higher pay and much higher turnover. As incorporation beckoned it felt like the future and sadly, that is how it has turned out.

Interestingly it’s not only colleges where following government expectations have led into crisis.  Those County Councils facing bankruptcy – Northampton & Somerset in the lead – are the ones that most enthusiastically embraced the slimmed down, low tax – low service model.  The bankruptcies of large training providers, which grew quickly for a while by doing exactly what government asked, further suggests that rather than the failure of individual leaders, there may be something worth looking at in terms of the way the entire system is designed. 

If we look across at the private sector it’s possible to see where the government may get its inspiration.  When BHS or House of Fraser collapsed, it’s simply termed ‘creative destruction’; making space for new entrants to the market.  When the pressures of extreme competition make top jobs more vulnerable, the response is to seek short term success at the expense of sustainability.  The lack of obvious panic in DfE about recurrent crises in FE colleges suggests that this could be the model they have in mind.  Far from being a sign of failure, this turbulence may be a sign for them that the market is working well.

If this hypothesis is true, then there is certainly a need for a rethink and if it’s not there is a need for DfE to take some urgent action. Our relationship with colleges (or schools, hospitals and universities for that matter) is not the same as that with clothes shops or fast food joints.  I’ve enjoyed a pastry in Patisserie Valerie but it’s no big deal if it disappears: some may mourn the loss of Maplin but we can buy IT kit elsewhere.  Destabilising the major providers of adult education and skills training in our largest cities is a far more serious matter.  Good training requires students to engage over years, not minutes: it requires staff able to build relationships, not just mouth ‘have a nice day’; it requires governors to be able to invest for decades, not follow short term fashion.

AoC and others are rightly drawing attention to the lack of funding in FE which is certainly part of the problem. Another issue however is the lack of a stable environment in which colleges can plan strategically rather than focus on the tactics necessary to exploit the latest policy wheeze.

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