Andrew Morris celebrates twenty years of City and Islington College

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Lasting success in education does not come overnight For truly outstanding performance a school or college needs the ‘three Ps’ – patience, professionalism and partnership, says Andrew Morris, author of a 20-year progress report on the path to success in a larger tertiary college.

Student Huseyin Acar unwittingly expressed the key message emerging from a study of an inner city college over the 20 years of its life when he said: ‘It’s a long-term relationship; we’ve run this journey together.’

What he said about his own learning journey from the day he started at City and Islington College until now mirrors that of the entire institution – created 20 years ago through the merger of two FE colleges, one sixth form centre and an adult education service. Moreover, it reflects the best of what further education as a whole has achieved since 1993, the year of Incorporation, when the sector left local authority control to go it alone.

Huseyin is one of 70 people Tom Jupp, former principal of the college, and I interviewed for a detailed study and book, City and Islington College: The first twenty years, published this week, of how one college survived and thrived through the revolutionary changes that followed.

Starting out as an architect after graduating from Bath Spa university, Huseyin was reflecting on his college days. He began as a refugee from Turkey learning English from scratch, went on to gain four top-grade A-levels and ended as president of the student union. Our study aimed to find out from students, former students and staff what a successful college felt like from the inside and what it had taken to get there.

What Huseyin managed to capture succinctly as the learner’s experience, the principal Frank McLoughlin was able to explain even more succinctly: ‘It’s the culture, of course.’ And Frank’s claim about how the college had achieved success was borne out by almost every one of the people we interviewed for the study. Perhaps the most remarkable finding was the sheer consistency of the descriptions and explanations offered by students, support staff, teachers, security personnel, governors and all. Each described some aspect of a broader culture.

What does this ‘culture’ mean in practical terms? The quality of relationships stood out above all – the mutual respect people demonstrated for one another. Alice Myfanwy Nee, a student with dyslexia now studying accountancy after her BTEC Diploma, said: ‘Support advisers, academic tutors, personal tutors – you could always talk to them about problems and they all helped in one way or another.’

Similarly, as psychology teacher Priya Sodha described the culture: ‘Students work together teaching each other, helping, sharing and encouraging each other; I just think it is amazing.’ The same regard was expressed by Arnie Mediu, a security guard, at the very threshold of the college: ‘When they enter I say “good morning”, not “have you got your ID card?”.’ Equally clear was the sense of engagement with students felt by support staff in libraries, human resources, registry and other areas.

One of the first tasks was to build a shared understanding of the relationship between good quality teaching and learning and outcomes for students. There was also the need for accountability to students and to governors.

This was not as straightforward as it may appear with hindsight. Student success was not rigorously defined or measured in the college in 1993. Student numbers often included people who had dropped out very early and, in most parts of the college, achievement was measured against entry for accreditation or exams rather than against enrolments. The result was a picture of success for students that was misleading and often self-deluding for teachers. The same issue existed across colleges and was highlighted in the 1992 Audit Commission Report Unfinished Business. It talked about the waste and cost of drop out and failure to take qualifications. Few colleges achieved a success rate for all students as high as 50%. In the light of this, progress at City and Islington over the past decade was remarkable (see Table 1 below).

The publication of the Kennedy report, Learning Works, in 1997 marked a key shift from the policy of ‘stack ‘em high’ regardless of who ‘they’ were. The report argued that one key aspect of the mission of colleges should be to widen participation by encouraging people from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue in education after 16 – central to City and Islington’s mission as an inner-city college – and that colleges should be rewarded for doing so. In 1999, the new government introduced additional funding for students coming from the most deprived postcodes. About 85% of college students came from such postcodes – and they still do – so the college’s financial position improved and it was able to move away from an endless cuts agenda, to invest in quality and new opportunities for students. The sense of ‘culture’ referred to by Frank McLoughlin came through in many other ways – the quality of new buildings resulting from a brilliant estates strategy; the pervasive sense of progression, preparing for the workplace, aspiring to higher education; the quality of IT in support of learning and administration.

If having the right culture is a way of describing success, how does a college make this happen? Clear messages came across through the many accounts Tom Jupp and I heard from interviewees. An uncompromising focus on the core business, teaching and learning, was the explanation from all – teachers, governors, managers. As one of the governors, Nigel Percival put it: ‘We don’t play silly games with data and provision; you get the learning right and the rest follows.’ Teachers pay close attention to individuals, support staff are closely involved, high expectations are everywhere and planning for progression is built in from the word go. Former students return to inspire their younger peers, students work in actual hair salons and dance companies within the college to encourage realistic aspirations for further learning and work.

Equality and inclusiveness are manifest throughout the college – students with special needs run the canteen in one adult learning centre, major events are held across the college celebrating Black History Week, LGBT pride and Women’s Day. Many students and alumni seized on such ‘enrichment’ activities to explain their belief that the college had played a transformational role in their lives. Perhaps most surprising to us interviewers was the repeated reference to the Management Behaviour Framework – a document developed through consultation across the college which sets out expectations of managers in practical terms, not least on issues of equality.

This brief sketch indicates what people felt about the culture of the college and its importance in explaining academic success. The difficult question it raises is: how did this come about?

The college began in unusual and interesting circumstances in 1993. Despite incorporation that year, local councillors in conjunction with governing bodies took a bold decision to create a single comprehensive institution out of the major post-16 providers in the borough – almost creating London’s first tertiary college (apart from a few small school sixth forms). By integrating what are traditionally understood as quite distinct, even rival, sectors the college was espousing an ideal of equal esteem for all types of learner, avoiding a selective academic/vocational split. It was also taking on a huge strategic challenge.

The approach adopted was evolutionary, with leaders and governors committed to a long term view – stretching over decades. The early federal kind of structure respected the practice and relative autonomy of the pre-existing institutions; a subsequent structure saw greater central direction as fragmented curriculum areas were brought together. In the final version, local autonomy was strengthened once again in a devolved set of Centres attuned to the needs of specific kinds of learner.

The management approach was described to us usefully as ‘loose/tight’. Qualities in the predecessor institutions were recognised and built upon – there was to be no clean sweep or rapid turn-around. But financial control was rigorous, performance data had to be accurate, even where uncomfortable, and poor provision was firmly addressed.

Despite all the distractions of buying and selling property, adjusting to ever lower levels of funding and negotiating new staff contracts, the focus remained steadily on improving the quality of teaching and learning. Inspections were treated as an opportunity to prepare detailed information for internal use in driving up standards, as much as for external purposes. Leading teachers were drafted into a newly constituted Teaching and Learning Unit from all parts of the college – adult, sixth form and FE. Cross-fertilisation began to occur on the key questions of effective pedagogy; the benefits of a comprehensive institution began to be felt. A key outcome of this collaborative, developmental approach has been that an unusually large number of staff have remained with the college for decades and a large fraction of these have moved into senior positions. The college has ‘grown its own’.

So what, in summary, are the key messages of general interest arising from this study?

  • First, as for many enterprises: take the long view: 20 years is a reasonable expectation for reaching ‘outstanding’ status, given that the root causes of quality improvement need to be addressed.
  • Second, by accommodating all types of post -16 education in a unified system, damaging rivalries and inequalities are minimised and the benefits of cross-fertilisation enjoyed.
  • Third, focus relentlessly on the core business – teaching and learning – and work with the people you have, help them develop professionally.
  • Fourth, given the complexity of a large college, attend carefully to all the players in the system, from premises managers to governors – all play key roles in the overall experience of student.
  • Fifth and finally, judging from the advice we gathered in our many interviews, pick your governors and security staff carefully… and make sure you nurture them!

City and Islington College: The first twenty years, by Andrew Morris is available free of charge from the college: Graham.Drummond@candi.ac.uk. Andrew Morris, formerly Director of Marketing and Development at City and Islington College, is a member of the Policy Consortium

Table 1. College success rates from 2002 to 2011 (%)

  02/03 03/04 04/05 05/06 06/07 07/08 08/09 09/10 10/11
ALL Ages 59 60 70 74 76 77 78 79 81
16-18 77 78 78 80 81 83

This article originally appeared in the Education Journal of  5 July 2013 and, in a slightly adapted version, the Basic Skills bulletin of 8 July 2013.

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