How Dudley College made it into a class of its own

Dudley College has been rated as outstanding across the board by education watchdog Ofsted – putting it among the best in the country. We speak to college principal Lowell Williams about the turnaround in fortunes

"The finances were very poor, the buildings were very poor. The Ofsted rating was the worst it could be. On the face of it it looked desperate and impossible."

Ten years ago Dudley College was on its knees.

Failing in the eyes of the education regulator, it was rated inadequate and lacking direction having gained a reputation for poor standards.

A decade on, the picture could not be more different.

Gleaming state-of-the-art science and technology campuses, enviable performance and, now, recognition from Ofsted for the right reasons has capped an incredible turnaround in fortunes.

Dudley College is now rated as outstanding for the first time, one of only a handful of further education sites in the country to achieve the notoriously difficult honour.

From a long period of decline over the last decade which saw it languishing in the performance tables, the college now rivals the best in the country.

The man who has overseen the remarkable transformation in standards is Lowell Williams.

The principal arrived in 2008 with the unenviable task of driving up standards and turning the college into one parents would want to choose for their children.

The outstanding rating is reward for the work that has gone in over the last decade.

Mr Williams said: "I am so proud of the college staff and students. I think it is really important to get external recognition for the work that has gone on. It is brilliant for Dudley and the Black Country."

The boss said the college was drifting when he arrived, suffering with a lack of leadership and belief or willingness for things to change.

His frank assessment was that the college had become a 'mess'.

"The college hadn't stayed true to its focus. It was poorly led and managed and the leadership wasn't there," he said.

"People didn't work collectively. It was a series of little fiefdoms, departments were doing things they wanted to do.

"I don't think there was a belief things could be different. It had become a bit of a mess.

"In fairness to the college there has been so many changes to education and it is not easy for colleges.

"It wasn't good and it was a real shame for the college because it is a major part of the community.

"The college was failing in 2007 and it was a real problem."

Investment - one of Dudley College's new facilities

As well as what were, on the face of it, simple changes such as getting everyone pulling in the same direction, Mr Williams and college chiefs embarked on an ambitious programme of investment.

Millions have been spent modernising the college, with new campuses springing up around the town centre over the last few years.

He said: "We took quite a risk. As the college was inadequate in 2007 we couldn't get access to public money. And by the time we improved all the Blair money had gone.

"We got a corporation together and got business people on board to bring investment and grow student numbers.

"Now it looks like a fantastic business decision but at the time it was a big decision. We were borrowing at a time of crisis and found a bank to lend to us.

"We borrowed and took out loans and now we are paying them back."

He added: "Dudley has been woefully under-invested in for years. It developed a culture of fear and people were not willing to take risks.

"In 2007, we had a poor reputation and is was either close up shop, which we couldn't do because colleges are so important, or invest and make something good."

The college was rated outstanding in seven out of eight areas including teaching, effectiveness of leadership and management and outcomes for students, with the other – provision for students with high needs – rated as good.

Such glowing praise from the education watchdog is hard to come by, as many headteachers will attest.

Mr Williams said: "It is a problem getting outstanding from Ofsted. The inspection is really tough. To get outstanding you have got to be outstanding everywhere. They only give you outstanding if everything they find is outstanding."

He continued: "It is hard to believe it. We are now one of the best if not the best.

"There is no magic to make anything work. It is a simple philosophy but is very hard to pull off.

"We did extremely well with a management development programme.

"I went from being virtually alone to having a management leadership team. One person can't do it, they can only start it.

"We said to staff in 2007, 'would you let your son or daughter go to the college?' and many said no. Now the college is full of staff children so that is vindication of the confidence here.

"Key was unlocking the talent that was already here. There were two main things, one was having a very clear focus on where we wanted to go to and the other developing good leaders across the college.

"It was very strange. The finances were very poor, the buildings were very poor. The Ofsted rating was the worst it could be. On the face of it it looked desperate and impossible.

"But as soon as I got to know the staff at the college I knew we could do something really special.

"I can't say in 2007 I could have guaranteed it but I felt it could be better than it was. It has not been easy."

Dudley College now faces a new and unfamiliar challenge. Like a football club which wins the league for the first time, the task is to stay the best and not let standards slip.

The college's second Advance campus will soon be opening, the latest addition to its impressive learning quarter, is due to open in the coming months.

And Mr Williams said: "We won't be believing our own hype and will be keeping our feet on the ground. We are back to the day job.

"Having got to outstanding level we need to make sure we keep it that way. We won't be getting carried away."

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