‘Superficial area reviews aren’t the answer for FE’

24th July 2016 at 10:00
area reviews superficial inside
One college chair who has been through the process says that ill-informed, one-off exercises won’t deliver the long-term security that the sector needs

The great majority of FE and sixth-form colleges are already (or will soon be) engaged in area-based reviews of post-16 provision. As a “graduate” of one of the first reviews, covering the Solent, and in my capacity as a chair of corporation, I thought it might be helpful to describe my experience.

The Solent review was overseen by a committee chaired (with exemplary courtesy) by the FE commissioner, Sir David Collins. Each college was represented by its chair and principal. Other governors attended briefing meetings. There was the usual array of minders from the various departments, agencies and local authorities, as well as the local enterprise partnership (LEP). Students, staff and representatives of other interests were conspicuous by their absence.

The main committee had seven meetings over eight months beginning in November, and the final report is yet to be released. There were also workshops and briefings. The overall cost is not known but it must be considerable, covering not only travel and attendance at meetings but also the time taken to read and comment on papers, brief governors and staff, consult local stakeholders, respond to the odd press query, and so on.

Equally costly, but even more unquantifiable, has been the distraction of senior leaders and governors at a time when there were many other demands on their attention.

The review got off to a slow start. The fact that the chancellor’s Autumn Statement was not as draconian as had been feared somewhat took the edge off the process, slowing it up and reducing or even removing the original sense of urgency.

Then there was the government’s decision (announced in November but with no draft guidance until the end of February) to permit sixth-form colleges to apply for academy status. There were a number of other matters for which official guidance was tardy, incomplete or both, such as the coverage and terms of reference of the transition costs and funding to cover transition and restructuring costs.

There was a strong sense that policy was being made up as we went along. Yet colleges were being asked to take some fundamental (and irrevocable) decisions about their futures with very little up-to-date information or guidance. There was also, and remains, a fundamental contradiction between the rationale for the reviews – financially vulnerable colleges need strengthening to survive – and the belief that colleges should work more closely to share their leadership, business and quality expertise with underperforming schools in their areas.

‘Fudging’ the issues

This is not a criticism of the individual officials involved. The secretariat worked extremely hard, if not always productively. The review yielded a small amount of interesting information. There will be some college restructuring but some of this might have happened anyway, and it may or not prove to be durable. Other issues were simply fudged.

The real question is whether, if there is indeed a need for a review and rationalisation of provision to bring supply and demand for post-16 education into a closer balance, this is the best way of achieving it. Experience of this review suggests that the answer to this question is almost certainly no.

To begin with, schools with sixth forms and independent training providers were excluded from the review. With the important exception of the Isle of Wight (where the pattern of post-16 education is a national disgrace, owing chiefly to the persistence of inefficient and underperforming school sixth forms), this was not a major problem for the Solent review, but it will be elsewhere.

There were endless difficulties with what information was available about current and likely future patterns of supply and demand, with an almost constant back and forth between the review team and the colleges for comparisons, checking and correcting. The LEP did its best, but informed, specific employer input was limited.

The area covered by the Solent review was arguably too large to be treated as a whole and yet it does not fully reflect market realities – for example, my college’s major competitor is in another review area, and there appears to be little coordination between the different reviews.

Above all, the reviews are a one-off event when what is needed, if we are serious about wanting provision to reflect and indeed anticipate changes in demand and financial support, is surely something that is permanent, comprehensive and properly resourced (not least, including officials who have real experience and expertise in dealing with the issues involved).

Capacity and authority

This is not necessarily a plea for the recreation of the Learning and Skills Council, let alone Training and Enterprise Councils or Learning Partnerships – remember them? However, there surely needs to be some locally based body that not only has the capacity to look ahead and anticipate changes in demand for post-16 (or post-compulsory) education but also has the authority, knowledge and power to encourage or compel adaptive responses.

These should be on both the supply side (relating to the current pattern and modes of provision, opportunities for collaboration, and under- or over-supply) and the demand side (focusing on employer demand, and working with employers or their representative bodies to identify future skills needs).

Such a body would also support and work with other organisations at the education-employment interface, such as the LEP.

Of course, this is all very countercultural. Colleges value their autonomy and their ability to outsmart or outmanoeuvre their competitors. Ministers seem wedded to the view that post-16 education is essentially a commodity that is best provided through a market or quasi-market. Employers are mostly disengaged – students and local communities even more so.

Nevertheless, the existence of the reviews, and the importance being given to them, is clear evidence of official recognition of the need for some sort of state intervention if the public interest in having a viable and accessible system is to be secured.

Yet without some effective coordination of provision, we shall be compelled to undergo yet more one-off, superficial and expensive exercises like the area reviews. There must be a better way of skinning this particular cat.

Roger Brown is emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and chair of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire

This is an article from the 22 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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