10 Top Tips for Success: promoting a successful college sector

Much of the discussion these days around education in Wales seems to be negative. The recent OECD report on ‘Schools in Wales’ by Andreas Schleicher pointed out that the “the disappointing Pisa 2009 results sparked a national debate on the quality and future of education in Wales which has resulted in a broad consensus on the need for change’.

10 Top Tips Plus Conviction

Further education is having to manage a very tight funding situation but the mood, as shown in ColegauCymru’s annual conference and awards’ ceremony last week, is much more upbeat. Why is this? There is the conviction of course. Colleges deliver the vocational and academic skills that Wales needs to operate in a competitive global economy and also promote social justice by tackling disadvantage and raising aspirations.

Steve Jobs of Apple once said that he wanted to go to bed every night having done something wonderful during the day – this is what we do in further education.

But conviction alone isn’t enough. Here are ten tips I see as helping promote a successful college sector.

 Top tip 1: be optimistic

There is no doubt that colleges have improved dramatically in the past decade. They are optimists, seeing themselves as the ‘can do’ sector, looking for opportunity in times of challenge.

Top tip 2: share good practice

Colleges are willing to share good practice and to benchmark performance. No other sector does this in such an open way. The ColegauCymru Awards play their part in identifying good practice that is then shared actively within college networks.

Top tip 3: focus on learners

There is a clear and absolute focus on the learner. There has to be. Attendance at college is voluntary so colleges must work continually to meet learners’ needs. Coleg Gwent fought stiff competition to win the Learner Voice Award at the ColegauCymru Awards last week and I’m pleased to note that colleges’ efforts are recognised by others too. Estyn recently gave a positive report on college efforts to integrate the learner voice and recent annual surveys of learner attitudes to FE have been very positive.

Top tip 4: be responsive to your audience

Colleges are also very responsive to the needs of business and their local communities. There is no compulsion on employers to engage. Recognising this responsiveness, the ColegauCymru Award for Entrepreneurship and Employability went to Grŵp Llandrillo Menai while that for the Learner of the Year, for which impact on the wider community was a judging criterion, was awarded to Bridgend College’s Victoria Brand.

Top tip 5: develop and invest in great staff

Quality and raising standards are central and colleges have continued to recruit specialist staff and invest in their continuing professional development. Dr Graham Hall of Coleg Meirion Dwyfor, for example, ColegauCymru’s Teacher of the Year, is an internationally recognised expert in the teaching of numeracy and is currently working on a research project with Oxford University.

Top tip 6: move with the times

Teaching methods have improved. No longer is the classroom a secret garden. When training to be a teacher, I was never observed in the classroom. Unthinkable now. Sound pedagogy and innovative, up-to-date teaching and learning that harness new technology and digital learning are the expected standard. Demonstrating that good practice is spread across the college sector, three different colleges won a ColegauCymru Award in this area: the Teaching and Learning Award went to Coleg Sir Gâr; the Technology Aiding Learning Award was won by Coleg Cambria; and the Welsh and Bilingualism Award went to Coleg Ceredigion.

Top tip 7: be accountable

The sector is both more efficient and accountable than it was. Over £300m of public money is invested annually in colleges and they are (rightly) subject to tough scrutiny, audit and financial regulatory checks to ensure value for money.

Top tip 8: lead with a strong team

Colleges are led by strong management teams that have the vision as well as the ability to lead such complex organisations that continually face many changes.

Top tip 9: govern to support as well as challenge

As for governance, what a huge change!

We have professional boards that are both supportive and challenging. Following the Humphreys report on governance, colleges are setting up stakeholder/membership-style bodies to bring colleges closer to their communities.

Top tip 10: keep doing all of the above

Lastly, but perhaps the most important of all, colleges are not complacent. We have seen elsewhere some very successful colleges that have come unstuck. We’ve all heard that ‘nothing recedes like success’ and ‘from hero to zero’.

Colleges recognise that they have to continue to work hard to keep improving. A top marathon runner who stops for a break will find the rest of the field rapidly disappearing over the hill.

FE colleges have embraced change. Five years ago there were 25 colleges; now there are 15. In the process of transforming, they stay positive, continue to improve quality and remain committed to delivering the skills that Wales needs and working to achieve social justice.

An earlier version of this blog was published in the Western Mail in May 2014


About johngraystone

Previously Chief Executive of ColegauCymru (2001 - 2014). Now carrying out various consultancy activities in post-16 education and skills. Interest in education policy and the governance of further education colleges.
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