FE commissioner: 'Colleges will have to specialise to survive'

Area reviews will not be 'the end of the story' for college reorganisation, Richard Atkins tells TES

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“Significant” continuing pressures on funding will result in many colleges being forced to specialise to survive, the new FE commissioner has predicted.

In his first interview with TES since being appointed last month, Richard Atkins (pictured) also warned that he did not expect the area reviews to be “the end of the story”, with “limited” funding likely to lead to more mergers, even after the process ends in the spring.

The former Exeter College principal said he expected that some proposals made in the earlier area reviews would not come to fruition, with a number of institutions unlikely to be able to “implement what they’ve agreed to”.

He also said there was a “case to answer” over small school sixth forms and acknowledged that, in some cases, the low quality and limited range of qualifications on offer was a “real problem”.

Providers ‘on their own’

In March, then skills minister Nick Boles told college leaders that they could not afford to “sit out these area reviews” and “see how the chips fall”.

He insisted that once the pot of restructuring funding had run out, colleges would be “basically on your own”.

At the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) annual conference in Birmingham last week, Mr Atkins said that, of the 200 colleges that had already been through the area review process, 88 were working towards merger, with 65 planning to remain as standalone institutions.

Mr Atkins, a former president of the AoC, told TES that the area reviews were on schedule to finish by the end of March. But he also insisted that this would not be “the end of the story”.

“I think you’ll have colleges that are unable, for various reasons, to implement what they’ve agreed to. They will need support; there will be a few of those. And, sadly, there will be a few colleges that will probably still require intervention.

“From what I heard the secretary of state say…resources will be limited. Therefore, collaboration will be the only way to effectively provide resources for the learners who need them. You particularly think of levels 4 and 5, and think of resource-hungry areas like construction and engineering. I do not think, over time, as many colleges will be able to operate in all these areas at all these levels.”

Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group of colleges, said Mr Atkins’ comments were “helpful”. He added: “We agree that specialism is a likely way forward for colleges, especially at levels 3, 4 and 5 and in sectors of great economic impact that experience the greatest skills shortages, such as construction.

“We also see the rise of regional college groups, as seen in the devolved nations, as a productive model for English colleges.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 25 November edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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