157 varieties do not suit all palates

When Sir Andrew Foster urged colleges to play to their strengths and specialise he saw the benefits of size. The bigger the better and the more able they are to concentrate resources where it matters.

But size was not everything. He exhorted school sixth forms and relatively small sixth-form colleges to have a crack at building areas of expertise.

Here was the key to improving the reputation of further education, said Sir Andrew in his report on the future of colleges.

City College Manchester, a big institution, could argue that it achieved the Foster reputation for excellence in offender education, since it provides top-rate services to 40 prisons nationwide through the most ambitious contract in the field.

Would its reputation be raised further were the college to merge as proposed with neighbouring Mancat (see page 3). Or would it be diminished alongside other pressing priorities? There is a danger that such interests would be eclipsed. There is no research or other evidence for the optimum size of a college. Everything depends on geography, demography and resources.

Big colleges have a new organisation to represent their interests. The 157 Group created partly at the prompting of Sir Andrew - 157 was the paragraph on reputation in his report - has kudos. It carries considerable influence with ministers who are wedded to the idea that big is beautiful. Indeed, in the recent FE white paper, the Government gave priority to seeking models of best practice for the most successful large colleges.

There is a danger this issue will get out of proportion. There may be a case for the Manchester merger, an independent review suggests. But in any case the only criteria should be: do the students and wider population benefit?

Manchester is a huge city and there should be room for more than one FE college. There are many arguments about economies of scale, stability and unnecessary duplication of courses in the competition for bums on seats.

But other options might serve equally well, as in Hertfordshire where four large colleges, each with a distinctive ethos, are federating to end undue competition and develop individual strengths and specialisms, as Sir Andrew urges.

Without due caution and consideration, there is a danger that small successful colleges will be railroaded into merger on the sole principle of "big is beautiful".

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