For the past two years, college leaders have been preoccupied by issues connected with area reviews. The government kicked off the post-16 area review programme in July 2015, and has conducted 37 reviews across England, involving 330 colleges.
For some governors and principals, the process has been a series of evening meetings discussing other people’s problems. But for many, it has been a chance to reflect on their position and move forward with plans for change.
Since the start of 2016, there have been 16 college mergers and two sixth-form college academy conversions. Over the next 12 months, there could be another 30 mergers and 10 conversions. Area reviews had a role in galvanising action.
This is a bigger restructuring than recent programmes in Scotland or Wales but, as is typical in the English system, it has been haphazard, underfunded and led by institutions. Colleges will be paying for much of it themselves from future efficiency savings.
There may well be new ministers after the June election and there is, or will be, new leadership in key agencies overseeing colleges, including Ofsted, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Institute for Apprenticeships and the Office for Students. But it would be a mistake for the government not to build on its area review experience.
Area reviews were meant to create a financially sustainable college sector, but a consultancy programme couldn’t do this on its own. The 2015 spending review made some budgets a little more predictable, but the government needs a sensible approach to funding so that colleges can plan confidently.
Regulation is a related issue. Now that we have a single Department for Education and a merged funding agency, it would be a good time to review who intervenes when, and with what result.
Finally, there is a point about the wider system. The reviews focused on colleges but left more than 2,000 school sixth forms, 48 UTCs and 1,000 training providers untouched.
Copying the entire national college programme across to the schools sector would be a step too far, but we now know how quickly the government can set up reviews when it wants to. So why delay on something that’s so clearly needed?
Julian Gravatt is assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC)
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