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Ideas & Observations

Seven ways to challenge college culture – our journey back to good

Ofsted downgraded NCG to ‘requires improvement’ in 2018; a significant step change was required for the colleges journey back to the 2022 judgement of ‘good’. NCG had two significant challenges, to reach sustainable financial stability and quality improvement, and so embarked on a transition from seven colleges and a centre, to become ‘One NCG’. Liz Bromley, chief executive of NCG, reflects on lessons from that journey

1. Clarity of purpose – why are we doing what we do?

First we designed a ‘Strategy Towards 2030’, through wide consultation about our mission, vision and values. This strategy underpins every decision – all business planning must contribute to the strategy’s delivery; and all colleagues must ‘own’ the strategy.

2. All seven college principals joined the group executive to raise the visibility of leadership.

To become ‘One NCG’, we had to understand that the core business of education happens in college, so college leadership must be part of the leadership of the group. There needed to be consistent standards, expectations and alignment to the strategy, vision and values, and this had to be seen in the behaviours of the leadership group-wide at every opportunity. And so, the concept of ‘One NCG’ became reality.

3. Sustainable cultural change across a large, dispersed group requires clear, consistent and two-way communication.

Videos, town hall meetings (ironically, made easier by COVID-19 and Microsoft Teams), regularly updated FAQ lists, and progress updates all contributed to ‘One NCG’. During our Ofsted inspection, update comms were shared in near real-time.

4. Building up a willingness to change across the group was vital to the cultural shift to move us to ‘good’.

Strong leadership, consistent communication and clarity of purpose reinforced the ambition to prove to Ofsted that we were now a learning organisation with the prerequisites for a ‘good’ judgement. During the two years before inspection, a willingness to change evolved group-wide from an ambition to succeed.

5. A key element of One NCG, essential to achieving our Ofsted judgement, was collaboration.

COVID-19 created the opportunity to work across the geography – frequently meeting remotely to manage the pandemic, then to discuss policy change and the White Papers, managing financial challenge, and critically, preparing for inspection together. Every college wrote a student aid report (SAR); colleagues from other colleges and professional services became critical friends; the final versions formed the basis of our Group SAR and this proved critical for a single judgement.

6. A tangible outcome from collaboration was the emergence of communities of best practice.

A huge benefit of being a large national group is our talent pool incorporating varied experience and understanding of the differences between delivering education in inner cities, in rural communities, in areas of high deprivation or where there is dense industry. This talent pool created virtual, group-wide communities of best practice, supporting teaching enhancement, good mental health, subject specifics, and functional skills improvements. They showed Ofsted our consistent approach to quality enhancement, and student first teaching and assessment.

7. Clear vision, collaboration, and communication led to group-wide shared ownership and accountability for our actions.

This led to shared success when Ofsted judged our provision to be good. The biggest lesson NCG has learned throughout the last two and a half years is that to be ‘One NCG’ we have to work together. Then we can celebrate together!

This was my first experience of Ofsted; and I hope it will not be my last. ‘One NCG’ was the basis for collaboration in all areas across our inspection and we will build on this to move from good to ‘ambitious for outstanding’. NCG has embraced new ways of thinking, behaving and working together, not only to be graded ‘good’, but to give our staff and students the best experience of being part of a learning organisation, and to deliver on our mission of ‘enabling social mobility and economic prosperity through exceptional education.’