“We will need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.”
That was very much the message we received as governors of one of the colleges involved in the first wave of the area based review process. And for very good reasons, the FE college sector needs to reform to meet the demands of public policy changes, the challenges of reducing budgets and changes in the markets for education and training.
The principles underpinning the process are also to be lauded. FE colleges will take control of the process and also of the outcomes. As governors and senior leaders we must see the bigger picture for the demand and supply of provision in our area and also be willing to make changes for the ‘greater good’. We must take an evidence based approach to the review and be willing to collaborate and work with others to achieve a more coherent offer for our learners and employers, as well as improve the quality of outcomes for them. A willingness to consider different structures, different ways of working and uses of new technology would ensure that the process produces positive, if not always measurable, benefits for users of our services.
Lots of relevant data from many different sources underpinned the evidence base, including patterns of learner recruitment and engagement, quality of provision and outcomes, financial heath indicators and information on future economic and labour markets trends.
The analysis led us to consider what would be the best ways of working and structures to respond to these needs and demands, and also how well our own colleges could rise to the challenges in the external environment. Options for specialisation, joint working, shared services, ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ federations, mergers have all been considered, and the pros and cons of each in turn. The steering group meetings and all the work by many people in between the meetings have led to sets of recommendations on structures, which governing bodies have then considered, accepted in full, accepted in part, rejected or provided alternative models to.
We tried to focus on the potential benefits in all of our deliberations in terms of a more rational, objective and collaborative approach to planning post-16 provision in our area that would avoid wasteful duplication and create more demand-led, flexible and responsive curricula to meet educational and employer needs. It would strengthen our regional reputation and also create a clearer and well understood brand for FE. It would enable us to reduce our operating costs, create specialist education and training centres, and deliver higher quality provision, particularly at higher levels. But throughout the process we had to remind ourselves that there would always be the need for inclusive and comprehensive post-16 institutions for those who are more vulnerable and least qualified and those who are less likely to travel.
However, there have been many concerns expressed throughout the process. Not including school and academy sixth forms, and independent training providers in the review and consideration of options for change, has meant that only part of the supply side is being reformed. Larger colleges do not always bring the economies of scale and improvements in financial resilience that are being claimed, and can lead to reductions in the range of provision and loss of learner choice, e.g. in Scotland the numbers of part-time adult students following the mergers there have almost halved. The area review process can also be overtaken by details of how local devolution of powers and funding will work in future, and an assumption that local commissioning might work better with fewer, larger providers. And there are still many unanswered questions. Will the savings gained through the process be channelled back into investment in the FE sector? How well equipped are the management teams of these larger organisations to lead and develop them? How will national providers be affected? How will other providers of post-16 education and training respond to these structural changes? Will they also merge and federate to compete on equal terms? How will the learning from the process be used to inform future reviews?
We have learnt much from the area review process that should be shared with others. The process takes much longer than planned, and also takes up a lot of principal’s and chair of governors’ time. Lots of detailed data needs to be reduced to high level information that can be used to make decisions. It pays to get some kind of clarity of the options for change by commissioning your own Structure and Prospects Appraisal. College senior leadership teams must focus on ‘business as usual’ and not fall into the trap of ‘decision-making paralysis’. Sometimes we need to be more honest about our own college’s strengths and weaknesses and not see the solution as ‘somewhere else’. It is essential that our stakeholders are kept informed of the process and its outcomes, e.g. staff and student briefings, especially to avoid rumour and conjecture. It is critical that we use language that all users and contributors to our offer understand.
Most importantly, is the review process itself a valid way of reforming a sector which has many competing demands on it, and is itself very diverse; with specialist and general education providers; sixth form colleges which may specialise in level 3 academic programmes but sometimes have very comprehensive offers; very large, large and small sized organisation with complex structural arrangements, including subsidiaries; and also, very diverse curriculum offers, including higher education and overseas students?
However, if the process is to continue to its planned conclusion by March 2017, it is essential that as governors and senior leaders we take control of the process as early as possible, before the review preferably. We must be well prepared, proactive and innovative, and be prepared to make tough decisions for the good of all our learners and employers. We must not take the easy options!