Education and skills funding agency (ESFA) and college leaders have agreed to tame their fractious relationship through dialogue. The bodies agreed to sheath their swords and repair damaged connections via an annual “strategic conversation.” This new development has met with loads of accolades as it is rightly seen as a better alternative to the previous approach the agency had taken. Plans are already in gear to have the first of these conversations next month.
According to the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, the conversations between his body and the agency will be beneficial to both parties. In his words, this new development will “help shift the focus in the agency away from the colleges they believe are in trouble to a more open discussion with all colleges.”
ESFA has credited Dame Mary Ney’s study of colleges financial oversight as being the brain behind the new path. The study had recommended that the agency take a new approach towards its relationship with colleges. It advised the regulator to begin to “nurture” the sector so as to reduce the high level of secrecy surrounding the finances of these colleges. Ney’s study noted that ESFA majorly focused on the “financial failures” of these colleges and this has made some of these colleges less transparent towards government.
Hence, this means that the agency would be meeting with all education colleges, which include specialist designated institutions, land-based colleges and also sixth-form colleges. However, independent training providers would not be involved in the meetings because they are different from colleges both in terms of their funding method and their business model.
ESFA would lead the change
To show its preparedness towards rebuilding its deteriorating relationship with colleges, ESFA has promised to lead the change by engaging with these institutions holistically. According to the agency, its meetings would be focused on identifying what the colleges are doing right and also where they might be facing challenges and the risks attached to their dealings with the intent of finding a possible solution. Not only that, the meetings would not be another form of intervention nor would it funding requirement; in fact, the outcomes of conversations would not be published.
On the part of the colleges, it is mandatory for college’s leaders including the principal and chair as well as an FE Commissioner official to attend these conversations that is expected to commence as early as April 2021 with the first full cycle completed by May 2022. The meetings could be held either virtually or at the various colleges, however, this is dependent on regulations covering gatherings during the pandemic.
Colleges welcome the idea
Colleges across the country welcome this new initiative by the ESFA. According to the chief executive of the Bedford College Group, Ian Pryce, he believes that the meetings have been long overdue. He noted that the current reactive approach of the agency has been poor, while this new way would definitely help relationships to improve and problems can be easily identified.
Another college executive, Luke Rake, the principal of Kingston Maurward College, gave his endorsement to the move and labeled it as being “sensible, proactive and forward-thinking.” John Laramy of Exeter College also shared Rake’s view. In his words, “I hope this is the first step in forming a new partnership between colleges and the ESFA, as ultimately we all want the same thing.”
Sam Parrett, the chief of London South East Education Group highlighted how these conversations would “help improve the sector if the key organisations involved in the oversight, regulation and operational leadership of colleges meet regularly to discuss the complexities and challenges involved in running colleges in these challenging times.” He added that the “the discussion that builds trust and confidence in the system leaders and ensures there is a supportive relationship between the ESFA and colleges.”