Just over two-thirds of the recommendations made in the government’s area review process for the further education sector have been completed, according to a new report.
The area reviews were announced in 2015 with a view to creating financially viable, sustainable, resilient and efficient colleges.
Today's report by the Department for Education states that 71 per cent of the recommendations are completed, while 13 are progressing, and 13 per cent – one in eight – is “not progressing”.
According to the Area review: end of programme report, “the steering groups approved a total of 376 individual recommendations, which included the following structural recommendations."
More on this: Area reviews have led to more collaboration
'Not being progressed'
It goes on to highlight that of the 68 recommendations made for colleges to merge – either as part of the original reviews or following involvement from the further education commissioner’s team, 57 had been implemented by April of this year. Eight colleges were involved in the forming of three federations.
Meanwhile, the research by the DfE also reveals that of the 54 sixth form colleges (SFC) for which it was recommended in the area-based review that they should explore becoming an academy, 23 converted into an academy.
“At the end of March 2019, 57 mergers had completed (84 per cent), nine (13 per cent) are not being progressed and a further two merger recommendations were still being implemented (3 per cent). By 1 April 2019, 23 SFCs had converted to an academy. One SFC assessed and approved during the area review process converted on 1 September 2019. We have now extended the opportunity so that SFCs can continue to convert to academy status by joining or establishing a multi-academy trust (MAT),” says the report.
The DfE’s report also sets out how the restructuring facility was utilised in the restructuring of the FE sector. It says that in total, 76 restructuring facility (RF) applications were received and of these, 62 were approved and 14 were withdrawn or rejected.
“Of the 62 applications that were approved, 39 related to restructuring proposals from FE institutions, which included GFEC [general further education colleges] and SFC mergers, with 23 applications from SFC to convert to academies (for both compensatory VAT funding if the liability arises and academy conversion). 36 applications benefitted from funds to support restructuring (i.e. excluding compensatory VAT). Of the 14 that were withdrawn or rejected, seven of these were from SFCs seeking to convert to academies, where either the SFC chose not to proceed with conversion, or the academy proposal was not approved, two SFCs went on to form different partnership.”
A further four, according to the DfE, were from general further education colleges seeking to merge or to standalone, “where the application was rejected because the proposal did not meet the RF objectives or eligibility criteria”.
Three mergers did not progress because the colleges seeking to merge could not agree terms with their prospective partners, or were unable to agree on the level of available funding to support the merger. “In these cases, applications were withdrawn,” says the report.
'A broadly positive impact'
The report concludes: “Although it is too early to determine the long-term financial position of the FE college sector, early analysis suggests that area reviews have had a broadly positive impact to date. It is too early to assess the full impact of the process, in particular, the impact of mergers on both the financial health and quality of colleges, because the mergers happened relatively recently, the majority in 2017-18. It will take time for financial efficiencies to be fully realised and for the benefits of stronger leadership to show in improved financial performance and Ofsted grades. Some early inspections have had promising results but we will continue to track and monitor performance.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “The area review programme has helped in supporting colleges to be more financially sustainable, which is crucial if we want to continue to deliver the skilled workforce we need for the future. We are really pleased that the area review programme has encouraged collaboration and has made it possible to maintain provision in areas that could have been under threat of losing access to a local FE college.”
“We are continuing to build on this through the work of the FE commissioner and the college oversight regime to support colleges to go from strength to strength. We have also recently pledged a £400m boost to help colleges and FE providers to continue to deliver high-quality education and training and recruit and retain the brilliant teachers and leader they need.”