Turnaround plan is working, says Easton and Otley College acting principal Jane Townsend
After Ofsted inspectors criticised failures at East Anglia's main land-based college last summer, its acting principal says her turnaround plan is showing positive signs for the future. Agricultural editor CHRIS HILL reports.
A forensic focus on teacher training and closer partnerships with the industries which will employ their students are central to the turnaround plan at East Anglia’s main agricultural college, said its acting principal.
Easton and Otley College, which has almost 4,000 students across two campuses near Norwich and Ipswich, was rated inadequate by Ofsted in July after a four-day visit in May, amid criticism of its teaching quality, attendance and student achievement.
The fall from the college’s previous “good” rating in 2013 prompted the departure of principal David Henley, and the promotion of Jane Townsend, who had become his deputy the month before Ofsted inspectors arrived.
Now as acting principal, she has set in place an improvement plan which centres on staff training, and uses outstanding tutors in subject areas such as sports, equine and floristry to mentor teachers in need of support.
This approach is already giving cause for optimism when Ofsted returns for a monitoring review in March. After observations by quality managers, 73pc of teaching and learning staff were graded as good or outstanding this month, compared to 35pc in September.
Miss Townsend said she wanted to inspire a culture change among the college’s 401 teaching and teaching support staff.
“When I arrived the college was fire-fighting, and there was not enough planning,” she said. “Reflecting on what has happened in the last four years since the last good inspection, there has been a huge amount of leadership change. And that really, for me, has been the crux of it.
“There hasn’t been that stability and forensic detail into the issues that the college has faced. And that is why I was brought in, particularly from the quality perspective, to really understand what was going wrong and put all those building blocks back into place.
“I put in place a comprehensive staff development programme that covered all aspects of teaching and we were able to spend a lot of time planning for the new academic year to make sure the experience for the students was the best it could be.”
As well as staff development training across the board, there is also a more targeted approach for teachers with weaker Ofsted ratings, using one-to-one mentoring by outstanding teachers from successful subject areas such as sport.
“Some of our outstanding teachers are in sport and they are leading on our transformation programme,” said Miss Townsend. “They are quite competitive, as you can imagine. They are picking up very quickly what they need to do to improve, and as a result of that we can use their experiences. The best development is not me standing up telling people what to do, it will be their peers.
“Staff that are good and outstanding are focused on the staff who need more support and we’ve now got enough TLA (teaching learning and assessment) coaches to support them on a one-to-one basis. So not only are we doing the broad-brush development training in teams, it is individual coaching, and that is the impactful stuff.”
Miss Townsend said although continued growth of the curriculum is another priority, agriculture and land-based studies are still central to the college’s curriculum.
“52pc of our provision is technically classed as land-based,” she said. “It is one of the highest in the country and it is critical to what we do. Our history is so important to us. But even though we are specialist land-based we are still a community college and we are here to serve the needs of our community.
“There are some areas we want to get into and rural tourism is one of those. It plays such a key role in farming because of the diversification element of it so that is one are we know we can support. It is about setting ourselves up nationally in certain areas we know we can lead on.
“So, it is all about growth, it is about being a national exemplar and outstanding in our delivery.”
Miss Townsend is among the applicants for the full-time role as college principal, with the recruitment process due to be finalised next month.
Discussions are under way with Norwich-based farm machinery dealer Ben Burgess to use the firm’s staff to run a branded agri-tech course.
“We often get told by industry that ‘we’re not getting the students we want’ or ‘they haven’t got the skills’,” said Miss Townsend. “Well, I want them helping us deliver the courses.
“We are having discussions with Ben Burgess about running courses, which is very exciting. That’s a model I have used before and it ensures we get the skill set right because industry are involved quite a lot, particularly in delivery but also in design, and they get the choice of the pick of the crop because they are seeing those students develop throughout the year. And those students then get the opportunity to go into an industry they become familiar with, and exposed to the range of jobs on offer.
“We do have to meet the needs of the awarding bodies, but as long as you meet all the criteria, the exciting bit is the delivery model, and that is where you can create a package for young people that meets their needs in an exciting, interesting way.
“How fantastic to have a leading manager talking about what they are doing in the marketplace, or the newest piece of kit? We are exposing our students to the newest manufacturing techniques or technology they are using in business which we are not necessarily using as a college, and probably couldn’t afford.”
GOVERNOR’S ACTION CALL
Another key change after last summer’s damning Ofsted report was the appointment of Mark Pendlington as chair of governors.
The Anglian Water group director and former New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) chairman said the turnaround involved some tough decisions – the 656-strong staff across the two campuses has been cut to 637 since July – in order to bring the college within budget and to tailor its offer to courses which students want.
It now teaches 265 courses, including 26 which have been established within the last 12 months, but minus 21 which have been put on hold and a further 17 which no longer exist. However, more higher education and commercial courses are now in place than there were a year ago.
Mr Pendlington has written to 300 senior stakeholders, setting out how they can help with the transformation following the Ofsted assessment, which he called a “real call to action”.
“I’m trying to get people to realise there’s so much potential here – come and help us,” he said.