Chichester College boss reflects on her time at the helm as she takes on new role

The chief executive of Chichester College, Shelagh Legrave, has seen the institution through financial difficulties, outstanding Ofsted ratings and mergers.

Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 7:00 am
Shelagh Legrave, chief executive at Chichester College Group, soon to be the FE Commissioner

After 18 years, Mrs Legrave will step down and take up a new post – as further education (FE) commissioner – in October advising the Secretary of State for Education and ensuring colleges ‘offer high quality education and training’.

We spoke to Mrs Legrave about what she’s achieved at her time at the college and what’s next.

“I am an accountant by qualification,” she explained. “I moved to Midhurst when I had my son. At the time I was director of finances at a university in London. I worked in investment banking initially, and did not know much about education.”

Shelagh Legrave

But it wasn’t long before she found a passion for the sector. In 2003, Chichester College was looking for a chief financial officer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I am passionate about social mobility and giving young people opportunity, whatever their background,” Mrs Legrave said. “I have always had a strong sense of social inclusion and social responsibility.

“Further education makes a huge difference. We’re changing lives through learning. It is a place where you can succeed whatever you’re starting point. Seeing the opportunities for people is always something I have really enjoyed watching and celebrating.

“I have spent 18 years in further education, I have got a real passion for it. Forty to fifty per cent leave school without five GCSEs. That is an enormous amount of young people who deserve to be given the opportunity to find the skills or job they want to go into, and given the skills to get there.”

Haywards Heath College open day: Paul Riley, Principal and Shelagh Legrave, CEO. Photo by Derek Martin Photography.

The college has seen a huge boost under the leadership of Mrs Legrave, as well as expansion.

“When I came here we were a good college and we were quite big as colleges went,” she explained. “We had just merged with Brinsbury. At that stage we got reasonably good results.”

In 2008, the college was rated ‘requires improvement’ for outcomes for learners by Ofsted “There was a job to do,” she said.

In 2009, Mrs Legrave’s predecessor persuaded her to apply to become principal.

“I was surprised to be appointed as I was not a teacher. My ambition was to get outstanding by Ofsted.”

The college achieved that ‘outstanding’ rating in 2014, and again in 2019 as part of the larger Chichester College Group.

“The outstanding by Ofsted was not an objective in itself. My objective was everyone wanted to send their child to Chichester College as they had a fantastic experience. Students at the heart of what we do has always been the mantra.”

Mergers

Following Chichester College’s outstanding rating in 2014, things were looking up, but Mrs Legrave said ‘financially things were really grim’.

It wasn’t long before the college looked to merge with others – and in 2017 it took on Crawley College. It merged with Worthing College in 2019 and reopened Haywards Heath College in 2020.

There were, of course, financial benefits to merging, but for Mrs Legrave it was about more than that.

“Driving all that was our belief that students deserve an outstanding education,” Mrs Legrave said. “We wanted to export that.”

The mergers have been so successful – with Chichester College Group being the largest of its kind to receive an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating – that another one is on the horizon.

The intention is for the Chichester College Group to merge with the Greater Brighton Metropolitan College (GB Met) – formerly City College Brighton and Northbrook College in Worthing.

“It will be fantastic if it happens,” Mrs Legrave said. “We can form a really strong group across West Sussex and Brighton, working with business and industry to deliver the skills they require. It is easier to deliver as a larger college group.”

But she added: “It is totally dependent on a financial package to support it. GB Met have too much debt. We can’t afford to absorb that debt into the group, we need some support from the Government to support the merger.”

Asked about concerns that creating a ‘super college’ may dilute education offering in local communities, Mrs Legrave said this will not be the case.

“The local college is for the local community. What was City College in Brighton is very important to the local economy, and that local economy is very different to that in Chichester. The college in the local community is vital. That’s what we’ve seen in Crawley and that’s what we want to see in Worthing.”

She added that there will be some ‘specialisms’ which students would travel for – such as the world-class furniture making course at Brinsbury College – but on the whole each of the colleges will continue to deliver the subjects they do now.

“It’s knowing that they will be part of a larger, stable group which is outstanding.”

But what makes a merger successful?

“Continuous improvement is a key aspect of what we do,” Mrs Legrave said. “We’re always learning. I have never been in a merger where we haven’t learned something they’re doing really well.”

And, she added: “We have got an outstanding team. Teachers are passionate about what they deliver, managers are brilliant at what they do. Everybody has the opportunity to play their part. It is giving people the tools and foundation to do what they need to do.

“Sharing practise is something we do well. We bring people together across the group. At the heart of it, it’s about culture. You’re enabling people to do their job, taking risks without fear of failure. You’re allowing people to feel they can try something different, that’s really important to us.”

The latest merger is expected to go ahead in 2022, so not one that Mrs Legrave will directly oversee.

She said: “It is not ideal timing. But I know I have a great group leadership team and a good set of managers who work for them. I know they will provide the stability to see us through to another merger. I absolutely will be supporting from afar. Intervention is part of the role of the FE Commissioner. It will be my responsibility to see a successful merger.”

New horizons

After achieving her ambition, she leaves to become FE commissioner, and hopes to continue to champion further education.

“It is a really exciting time to become the FE commissioner,” Mrs Legrave said. “There is a recognition that further education is going to be crucial to economic recovery and giving people the option to train for a career or to gain sufficient skills so that they will have a portable career.”

The changing economic landscape means further education is more important than ever, Mrs Legrave said.

“What industries will be around in 20 to 30 years? How much will AI take over our jobs? FE gives young people who have been disadvantaged the opportunity to see which skills and qualifications are going to be really important in the future.

“When I was younger the expectation was you go into your career and stay there. That is less likely nowadays. You need skills and qualifications in order to succeed, particularly in more high tech industries. That is what we do in abundance. You can study any subject you want to at every different level.”

Mrs Legrave goes into her new role with a huge experience of the issues colleges face.

“I will look forward to influencing policy so we can implement it and grow our economy nationally to meet some of the huge challenges.”

On leaving the Chichester College Group, Mrs Legrave said: “Personally, I will really miss the people. I have made such great friends. I have laughed with people I have seen challenges that they have had to face. But people who come here say ‘you’re always laughing’. We have fun. I will miss that enormously.”