Poor leaders are crippling UK colleges

November 3, 2000

One in nine further education colleges is badly led and nearly one in ten is failing to make the grade set by inspectors, further education chiefs revealed this week. Only a minority have good financial management.

A catalogue of weaknesses and concerns litter the annual report of further education's chief inspector, Jim Donaldson, published yesterday at the Further Education Funding Council's farewell annual meeting in Birmingham.

Amid words of encouragement over signs of improvement in some aspects of further education, Mr Donaldson warns: "There is a great deal of work in colleges which needs to be improved if achievement levels are to reach acceptably high levels for the sector." He adds: "The gap between the quality of student experience and likelihood of successfully achieving an appropriate qualification in the best and worst colleges remains unacceptably wide."

Mr Donaldson told The THES that colleges must "keep their eye on the quality ball" as they moved towards an era of greater competition under the new Learning and Skills Council, which takes up the post-16 reins from April.

His report, which draws on the results of 112 college inspections in 1999-2000, reveals that:

  • More than one in ten colleges has unsatisfactory quality assurance arrangements
  • One in nine is badly led by senior management teams
  • One in seven is poorly governed
  • Inspectors judge nearly one in ten colleges to be unsatisfactory in three or more areas of work
  • More than one in ten has weak financial management, with the proportion judged to be good dropping in a year from 55 per cent to 38 per cent.

Overall, the picture is less gloomy. Most colleges have taken on board the message that they must become more student-focused. Achievement levels have risen by 2 per cent for 16 to 18-year-olds and 3 per cent for adults, the report says.

But Mr Donaldson warns that a significant proportion of the sector still suffers from complacency: something colleges can ill afford with new area-wide inspections bringing "some uncomfortable comparisons" with other education and training providers.

For instance, just 3 per cent of schools visited by inspection agency Ofsted, which will lead further education inspections from April, were judged to have unsatisfactory provision last year, compared with 8 per cent of colleges.

The report says: "To respond to the challenges posed by the reports, colleges will be expected to demonstrate adaptability, a willingness to work more closely with their partners from other sectors than they have done to date, and a single-minded determination to improve the quality of every aspect of their provision."

Mr Donaldson says some college staff are "unwilling to acknowledge provision which is merely satisfactory". College managers and governors "still take insufficient account of student performance" because they "do not want to risk the opprobrium they perceive to be associated with anything less than good".

His report raises concern over the teaching of basic and key skills in the sector. Mr Donaldson says: "I am particularly disturbed by the finding that of the 644 literacy and numeracy lessons observed by inspectors only 49 per cent were judged to be good or outstanding and 11 per cent were unsatisfactory or poor."

The news coincides with the release of an independent report from Keele University researchers, which condemns the "naming and shaming" of colleges and suggests the government and the FEFC are as much to blame for failures as weak management.

After analysing the causes of ten college failures, researchers Paul Goddard-Patel and Stephen Whitehead conclude that unreliable inspections, complicated funding systems and 11th-hour reactions by civil servants and funding chiefs have brought about many of the sector's high-profile "failures".

The report says that "far from drawing attention to developing crises, the FEFC's inspection and audit reports often appear to have provided what subsequently has turned out to be almost perverse reassurance to the public".

Whether or not a college "fails" has "a degree of arbitrariness about it", and "the sheer suddenness... with which a supposedly successful college can become a failure is particularly ominous for the future of FE," the researchers say.

Financial and managerial problems remain in many colleges, with deficits increasing "at an alarming rate" in some institutions previously described in FEFC inspections as "financially sound", the report says.

It concludes that managers and governors must be given more support and training.

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