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‘My staff got us an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted and I repay them with larger class sizes’ - William Baldwin

16 February 2023

By William Baldwin, Principal of BHASVIC.

The national news paints a pretty bleak picture right now: public services at breaking point, industrial action across many sectors, rampant inflation and a government who seem to have lost their way.

Two weeks before the end of the Autumn term, we were distracted from these external economic and political winds by a visit from Ofsted, with BHASVIC’s first inspection in a decade. We were one of the first sixth-form colleges to navigate the enhanced skills element of an inspection; an interesting dimension for a provider that sends 75 per cent of students to university, and a divisive one in the sector, given that 16-19 academies are not subjected to this framework. That said, the duties under the Skills Act have undoubtedly enriched our thinking and provision – although I’m still not sure how working with employers to inform and evolve the delivery of A level maths would provide the benefits espoused.

In the end, we got an early Christmas present with an “outstanding” judgment across the board. This was met with understandable elation and relief, and there’s nothing like a staff Christmas party following a recent and successful inspection. Whilst we’re the recipient of the top grade, I can’t help thinking that the amount of resource and effort that goes into determining the difference between good and outstanding – often involving subjective judgements that are applied inconsistently – is completely disproportionate to judging whether a provider meets an acceptable standard or not. Surely this regime won’t last under a new government?

Unfortunately, our elation didn’t last long. I naively thought that post-Ofsted, January would be uneventful, despite knowing for years that there is never a lull in SLT – or for that matter for anyone in education. We had an SLT strategy day on 5 January and my finance director presented a draft budget for 2023-24 which contained a large black hole. This wasn’t an amount that we could just find by shaving other budgets around the edges – after over a decade of cuts, there are no edges left. Last year’s uplift to the base rate to help deliver the 40 hours has been rapidly swallowed by pay and energy costs. We are faced with so many uncertainties, that any budget planning is almost impossible. Where will cost-of-living pay settlements land next year? Anything over 2.2 per cent (the increase to our allocation that the government have announced) will be another real terms cut. What should we plan for? Where will energy costs be? What, if anything, will be the implications of the ONS reclassification? Might we eventually get a VAT rebate, a reduction in rates? Will there be any last-minute announcements of additional help (perhaps rectifying the Autumn statement, which only provided additional money for schools)?

With no clear answer to any of these questions and with a need for some certainty in planning, we knew that in order to address the hole in our draft budget for next year, we had to make structural changes. Increasing staff contract time, decreasing student contact time and re-structuring provision are actions that sadly, colleges already know all too well, and these are culturally devastating and not options I was ready to take this time.

So, how have I repaid staff for delivering the Ofsted outcome? My thanks to staff has been to announce that we will be increasing class sizes next year. Increasing staff workload, potentially decreasing quality for students. What sort of thanks is that? A pat on the back followed by a kick in the teeth. This isn’t “efficiency for the sake of efficiency” that is driven by management ideology, but instead an inevitable response to over a decade of underfunding in the sector. We have a fantastic culture here at BHASVIC. That is what got us through our inspection. It was both interesting and satisfying to see that when culturists come up against the technocrats, that culture won through. But will culture continue to win through?

Culture doesn’t settle a deficit budget or pay the bills, but it does provide the discretionary effort that any college needs to be successful. But how long will that last? The current NEU strikes against the government are for fair funding – including for sixth form colleges – so that we can pay staff properly. The hope is that with appropriate funding, we can sustain the culture needed to be a successful college, and that this isn’t eroded irreparably.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.