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Beating the bloat

It has been a remarkable 18 months of reform in the college sector. Mergers have given us institutions of scale and diversity. Regionalisation has provided a strong focus on local economies and labour markets. And curriculum developments have led to a significant rise in full-time course provision and a stronger emphasis on 16- to 24-year-olds. The Wood Commission heralds a further strengthening of vocational education and employer engagement.

On top of this, we have new and enhanced governance arrangements and strengthened expectations regarding sector leadership.

In some respects this has simplified matters. Rather than the 43 colleges that existed until very recently we now have 13 regions, 10 of which are served by single colleges. The remaining multi-college regions will soon be overseen by a single strategic body. Meanwhile, moves to develop a new and simplified funding model are well advanced.

So now might be the right time to reform the often complex range of publicly funded bodies that were established to support colleges in a very different sector from today's.

Take one example: we currently have two important bodies whose role is to support colleges in terms of educational provision and staff capacity and capability. Each involves significant public funding. Thus Education Scotland provides a range of services, most noticeably traditional college inspections, while the College Development Network provides staff development opportunities.

Both are primarily funded by the Scottish Funding Council - to the tune of #163;3 million in total in 2012-13 - and both operate under a single national policy framework.

It has become clear to many that each body requires a significant overhaul if it is to meet the needs of the changed sector. Doubt is increasingly being cast on whether traditional forms of inspection are needed at all. A much greater focus should, perhaps, be given to strong self-evaluation. The College Development Network, too, should take the opportunity to address the future needs of this much reformed sector.

Combining the bodies would mean greater efficiency and stronger integration of their support services. In terms of funding arrangements, too, the time seems appropriate for a rethink. Why should the Scottish Funding Council distribute all the money? Putting, say, 50 per cent of it under college control would encourage a responsiveness to demand.

It would be strange indeed if significant reform of the college sector did not lead to change in the bodies expected to support it. Perhaps they too could benefit from a merger, refocusing on need and achieving greater effectiveness.

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, a former member of the Scottish government change team and an adviser on post-16 education reform.

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