Ian Pryce

Never mind the quality 

My grandparents loved the late 1960s comedy “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”, a series that revolved around the cultural differences between two tailors, one Jewish, one Catholic. The comedy came to an end but that catchphrase lives on.

It is generally taken to mean putting volume ahead of standards, and examples often hit the headlines. Trade deals that allow chlorinated chicken or the panic procurement of some lousy PPE during the early Covid crisis are two recent examples.

In further education we sometimes see it in the context of the inaccurate and disrespectful phrase “bums on seats”. A favoured college that grows will be described in glowing terms as responsive and meeting local demand. A less favoured one doing the same will be accused of mis-selling or setting students up to fail. Just think of the Universities criticised for their “mickey-mouse” degrees or creating an army of unemployable artists, to see how this view has taken hold.

At one level name-calling like this doesn’t matter, but government has levers to stop colleges in their tracks. Most obviously, your apprenticeship provision goes if Ofsted judges you poorly or you fail to stay on the register. This interventionism, and the absolute creed that it is the best way to improve quality, is causing real problems for our sector and, more importantly, for the communities we serve.

Both Dame Mary Ney and the National Audit Office have concluded the intervention regime is not working well. It is confrontational and there is scant evidence the interveners are able to achieve quick success. There is now an orthodoxy that says if you are not good at something, stop doing it. It is an orthodoxy encouraged by the Ofsted framework and league tables that prize achievement rates over how much of your community you serve.

It is very common to see provision cut back, not because of low demand, but because of low achievement rates. Interestingly we find most students and parents hold the individuals who fail accountable for their lack of success, not the college. They didn’t work hard enough.

This approach is going to backfire badly as we try to level up so the orthodoxy needs to be challenged. When I worked in retail it was common to close shops where demand was unprofitably low. But it would have been incomprehensible if a manager proposed closure of a shop that had many visitors but where sales conversion was poor or we received complaints. We would immediately address the issue. If we weren’t good the mantra was always “then get good, and fast”.

Consistent poor performance in colleges is likely to be either systemic and deep-rooted, or caused by a major shift in student numbers (new competitors or demographics). Removing the weakest areas of provision is unlikely to prove a solution in either case, and almost certain to exacerbate the problem and leave the college weakened too.

Enforced reduction in activity is counter-productive. Colleges deliver a range of educational opportunities to their communities. We don’t separate our staff across funding streams and cuts to one affect the whole institution. Funding streams are the creation of government not colleges. We don’t see the 19 year old in her third year at college as a different species to the 18 year old sat next to her whose better GCSEs meant she didn’t have to spend a year completing level 2. Any reduction in total college income can have serious impacts when your cost base is fixed and your surpluses are less than 1%.

Surely we should support colleges in trouble to maintain their volume of activity and work to improve quality, appreciating this will take time. If we don’t our communities will be impoverished. One college not far from my own used to be an outstanding £40m turnover institution. It fell on hard times but intervention left it a third the size. The quality of provision is now good but the economic impact on the town it serves is diminished and will never recover to the earlier level.

So let’s recognise that shrinking to something small, perfectly formed, but less significant is not a good look. Let’s stop being so quick to axe funding when colleges falter. And let’s stop giving “bums on seats” a bum rap and start praising those looking to grow their provision, their influence and their impact, while addressing any quality concerns at the same time. That surely is the route to levelling up.

Ian Pryce

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