Area reviews: five ways to survive and thrive

Jason Quinn, assistant principal at New College Lanarkshire, shares some of the steps FE colleges have taken to navigate the process of area-based reviews

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With wave four of the area reviews process in England now underway, many questions will be occupying the minds of senior leaders in colleges that are about to embark on their journey. How much control will my institution have in determining the outcome of an area review? What should my college be asking the review teams? And what does success actually look like for our students and staff?

Colleges at different stages of the area review process came together recently to discuss these issues at a roundtable event chaired by Ioan Morgan, former college principal and past chair of the 157 Group, and hosted by Capita Further and Higher Education.

These were the experiences and lessons learned that they passed on to those colleges embarking on the process:

  1. Know your institution

    Whatever stage your college is at in the area reviews process, you have more control over the future than you might think. But to stay one step ahead, it is vital that college leaders know their institutions inside and out. If you understand the core strengths of your college, as well as any areas that might need developing, you will be in a much stronger position to champion your provision and challenge any preconceived assumptions.

    While your college may have a long-standing reputation for excellent social care training, for example, being able to demonstrate that you also have a high proportion of art and design students getting into prestigious universities will help you show the value your college adds as part of an area review.

  2. Seek out a good fit

    Don’t wait for the area review team to arrive – be proactive in looking at options for a closer partnership or merger with another institution.

    In one college, a list of potential candidates was drawn up and a member of the senior leadership team visited each one personally to start conversations. This helped to hone the list to one prospective partner, which the institution is now in talks with relating to a potential merger.

  3. Nurture support for your college

    Don’t underestimate the impact that the changes will have on staff – regular and open communication is a must. Weekly meetings at one institution helped to keep staff up to date with what was going on and the provision of training for those individuals changing roles was key to a smooth merger.

    Some colleges have taken steps to keep students informed through each stage of the process and involved them in the decisions being made, too. This could galvanise their backing for change and can help support a successful transition. 

  4. Be the go-to institution for locally led, quality education

    Don’t let the reviews distract you from creating a solid future for your college. Build relationships with local employers and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to help your institution take advantage of the opportunities around apprenticeships. Having a plan in place for delivering quality opportunities for students will be a plus point for the review team. 

    You could arrange for a senior member of staff to spend a day a week working inside a local business that is interested in expanding its apprenticeships. Alternatively, take steps to understand the education and training needs of a large local employer by inviting the CEO to join your board of governors. 

    This will not only help your institution to understand the business and what skills are required within it, but also bring the ethos and language of the industry back into the college – something the review team is likely to look upon favourably.
  5. Be information-strong

    Institutions going through the area review process have described the experience as a "tsunami" of data requests, many of which were often unexpected and in addition to initial requests.

    To avoid this, have reliable and robust data, such as student recruitment or retention figures and success rates – both historical and current – at your fingertips. Colleges report that detailed information, such as that relating to estates and assets or destination data, was often asked for, too.

    Whatever the future holds, FE colleges can play their part in the area reviews process and have an essential role to play in helping to shape and define the future of further education. 

To see the full college interviews, click here

Jason Quinn is assistant principal at New College Lanarkshire

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