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Divergent paths for the Celtic colleges

The review of FE in Wales contrasts sharply with the one in Scotland, as Neil Munro discovers

No standalone further education institution should have a turnover of less than pound;15 million, and the number of colleges in Wales should be reduced from 23 to around 10.

These are among the many stark messages from the review of FE in Wales, which has just been presented to the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

The challenge of mergers, which has a faltering history in Scotland, is only one of the issues which the Welsh review does not shirk. The contrast with the Scottish equivalent could not be greater.

The review in Wales was carried out by a three-person panel of independent experts, headed by Sir Adrian Webb, former vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan. The Review of Scotland's Colleges (RoSCO) was orchestrated by the then Scottish Executive and was at pains to draw on the views of every conceivable "stakeholder" in FE.

The Scottish review did not chart a course for what the Welsh inquiry called "reconfiguration" of FE institutions. The report in Cardiff takes no prisoners, declaring that FE colleges "should aim to become the recognised skills driver in their area and, to do so efficiently, they need to have a level of critical mass".

The Welsh review was much more wide-ranging than the Scottish one: it focused on post-14 education as a whole, and was not restricted to FE colleges. So it envisaged that there should be nine or 10 "commissioning consortia", each covering more than one local authority area, which would plan and fund all vocational and academic provision for 14 to 19-year-olds. Within five years, the report recommends, there should be only one large FE institution in every consortium and each should have a turnover of "substantially more than pound;15m."

The review believes such an arrangement would open up "learner entitlement" and bring to an end the existing voluntary approach to collaboration which, it found, was "plagued by institutional self-interest".

The suggestion that an FE college must have a turnover of pound;15m to be effective is hotly contested. Only 55 per cent of the institutions in Wales operate at that level, with turnover ranging from pound;3m to pound;50m a year. But the Welsh report was adamant and fully endorsed one of the responses to the review that, "given scarce resources and within the context of restrictions in funding over the next few years, too many institutions and organisations function at a local level for a small country such as Wales with a population of 2.9 million".

The same arguments have been heard occasionally in Scotland, but have carried little weight so far. A similar prognosis to that in Wales would see the number of colleges halved, from 43 to just over 20, either by merger or confederation; and, in 2005-06, there were only 14 Scottish FE colleges with total expenditure in excess of pound;15m.

Again in contrast to Scotland, the number of FE institutions in Northern Ireland is being cut from 16 to six, for a population of 1.7 million. In England, too, mergers are as much the norm as the exception, and FEIs with a turnover of pound;40-60m are not uncommon.

The conclusion of the Welsh review is that "small FE units tend to add to the complexity of an already overcrowded provider landscape and they may generate undue competition, though the present pattern of learning sites and high-quality specialisms must not be lost with reconfiguration."

In Scotland, RoSCO simply urged colleges to work together with other organisations "and with each other". Its much more tentative approach led it to press for another inquiry to "clarify the positioning and key roles of colleges and other stakeholders with an interest in the tertiary sector; develop regulatory and funding regimes to support this; and strengthen adaptive leadership capacity".

Jim Donaldson, a former member of the inspectorate in Scotland who was also chief inspector at the Further Education Funding Council for England, said: "Spending two years reviewing the sector, only to end up asking the executive to review it again is, to put it kindly, a missed opportunity."

The Welsh review has attempted a bold, root-and-branch reform, setting out a 10-year programme for employer-led training, learner entitlement, funding, and skills deficits.

"We must build a 21st-century education system fit for a confident nation," the Welsh report declares. "To do so requires further radical change; marginal adjustments will not suffice."

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