College sets out improvement priorities following 'body blow' Ofsted report
PUBLISHED: 07:03 17 November 2018 | UPDATED: 07:54 17 November 2018
Easton and Otley College was left reeling from its second successive "inadequate" rating from Ofsted inspectors - but after months of upheaval, its leaders are determined their turnaround plan will now take effect. CHRIS HILL reports.
After a torrid year of intense scrutiny, job losses and restructuring, this week’s critical Ofsted report was a devastating body blow to Easton and Otley College.
The stark “inadequate” judgement – unchanged from the previous inspection 17 months earlier – arrived despite the upheaval to return the college to a stable financial footing, and defied the optimism which had sprung from a series of promising monitoring visits.
Now its leaders, backed by senior rural industry figures, have signalled their resolve to ensure their turnaround plan will finally deliver urgently-needed improvements during a pivotal 12 months for land-based education in East Anglia.
College principal Jane Townsend acknowledged her staff may have been under-prepared for the inspection, which came early in the academic year, but also said the financial restructuring – shaving £3m off the staffing budget, equating to 80 full-time staff – had a “bigger impact than we anticipated”.
But now that painful process is complete, she said the college is back on a sustainable course, and the overwhelming top priority is to improve the teaching which Ofsted says is “ineffective”, holding back students.
“Everything we have been doing in the last year has been going in the right direction, it is just too early to see the impact of that,” she said.
“We have had all these impacts of having to change an organisation that really, organisationally, had issues. It was not just in quality, it was the whole structure. I feel like I’ve had to start a whole brand new college and, at the same time, run the old one.
“That’s a huge amount of work and in the last year I have had 58 different monitoring visits, be it internally or externally, so I am constantly preparing for scrutiny. It has been a huge challenge.
“The Ofsted report was a body blow for the staff. They have worked so hard this year and it was not a nice moment having to explain the outcome of the Ofsted inspection, because everyone expected it to be a better result and everyone was really shocked.
“For me, I don’t think we had prepared as well as we could over the summer, and I have held that mirror up to the team. In a turnaround you cannot take the pace off, and I felt we should have prepared far better for the start of the academic year.
“I cannot give excuses, because at the end of the day I am responsible for that second ‘inadequate’ and from now it is about how we recover from that and learn our lessons as quickly as possible.
“I am very confident in my ability and my team’s ability, and everything we have put in place are all the right things – it is just a matter of time to show that, and this will come true this academic year.”
The Ofsted report, published on Monday, said that while the “clear, detailed and ambitious actions” had improved the quality of education for apprentices and students with high needs, “substantial weaknesses” remain in the college’s study programmes and adult learning programmes.
Ms Townsend said the college, which has almost 4,000 students across its two campuses in Norfolk and Suffolk, is using specialist mentors and peer-to-peer workshops to drive up teaching standards – but a higher-than-average percentage of teachers who are new to the profession is adding to the challenge.
“We have 20pc of our teaching team who are brand new to teaching,” she said. “They are keen and enthusiastic, but bringing them up to work at the pace we require is probably the most difficult challenge, particularly in the first year.”
The principal said she had been “overwhelmed” by the support offered to the college by parents and stakeholders since the Ofsted report.
“I am actually beginning to feel the weight of responsibility even more keenly for our agriculture and farming communities,” she said. “With Brexit coming up, more than any other time in my career, never has the urgency for the right skills for our industry been more prevalent.
“With a number of groups I have spoken to, that has come through very strongly and there is a real sense of urgency – and slight panic – about where we are going to get these skills from.
“There has never been a more important time to have a college delivering for our agriculture and food industries. That is what drives me.
“There is no reason we should not be “good” at the next inspection, that is my aspiration.”
COLLEGE FARM ESTATE TO BE RUN BY STUDENTS
As part of the drive to make its students more “farm-ready”, the college has brought its own arable operations in-house to give youngsters practical experience – and the chance to learn from mistakes before they enter the workplace.
Easton and Otley College farms a 500-acre estate at Easton, as well as 300 rented acres at its Suffolk campus.
The land was previously contracted by Morley Farms, but principal Jane Townsend said this valuable learning resource will now be farmed by the students, under the guidance of farm manager Tony Buttle.
“When I first started here I was shocked that our students were not really involved in our arable production,” she said. “At the same time I was meeting a lot of farmers who were saying we were not providing the right skills and our students are not ‘farm-ready’.
“I want to get the students ‘farm-ready’, so my vision for the next three years is to have the students run the estate.
“We are not out to make a profit – it would be fantastic if we do, but if mistakes happen, they can happen here and the students can learn from them.”