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Mergers are the long-term answer - so start now

"An end to reorganisation for its own sake." This is one of the six principles that Sir Andrew Foster proposed for FE back in June.

Sir Andrew's final report comes out soon. It will be interesting to see if he sticks to his argument that strategy matters more than structure. After all, the usual response of government to a difficult problem is to reorganise.

Take the NHS. An annual reorganisation of health authorities added to the closure of the NHS university two years after its creation. The life of post-16 organisations is longer but not much. The next 12 months sees the break-up of the Learning and Skills Development Agency and consultation on merging the inspectorates. Who knows what's next?

By contrast, there has been much less structural change at college level.

At incorporation in 1993, there were 465 colleges in the FE sector. Twelve years later, there are 386. There have been 72 mergers, some transfers to the higher education sector, a couple of closures and two new sixth-form colleges. Consolidation has happened but the pace of change is glacial, particularly compared with mergers in the wider world.

This relatively low college merger rate comes despite many government efforts to encourage them. The Further Education Funding Council and local learning and skills councils both provided financial support to assist individual mergers, particularly in the period from 1997 to 2002.

Merger has been an important tool to eliminate financial weakness in colleges. Local factors have also made a difference. There have been four mergers in Sussex in the past four years and multiple mergers in some areas, such as Warwickshire. Other counties, for example, Cumbria or Gloucestershire, have not had a single merger in 10 years.

The responsibility for weighing up the costs and benefits of merger rests with principals and governing bodies. The costs come earlier on. Mergers consume money and management time. They can easily upset staff and students. Governing bodies do not always agree who should be in the chair.

Many merged colleges hit problems with enrolment in the first or second years.

The benefits, on the other hand, come later and in the long- erm. Larger colleges find it easier to manage large building projects and to shuffle courses around. A bigger local presence can help the college negotiate with local partners. For general further education colleges, size seems to correlate with better inspection grades.

Curiously, change in colleges has barely been affected by strategic area reviews of 14-19 education and training. Learning and skills councils embarked on these reviews with great hopes in 2003 but soon became bogged down in politics. The wave of college mergers at the start of decade was encouraged by a rationalisation fund, which ran out in 2002.

Individual local LSCs lost battles to involve school sixth forms in wider mergers in Carlisle and Hastings, partly because government priorities changed. Since 2003, the government's emphasis has been on protecting and expanding school sixth forms. While the LSC was paralysing itself with analysis, the Goverment decided to keep schools on side.

The Department for Education and Skills first made its new policy explicit in its five-year strategy, published in 2004. It promised to make it easier for high-performing secondaries to open sixth forms. At the same time, a pound;275 million 16-19 capital fund will support growth over the next two years.

The proposed rules are biased in favour of school sixth forms. Nearly 2,000 secondary schools do not have sixth forms, 43 per cent of the total. Ten new sixth forms opened this month, four in schools and six in academies.

The new rules and the new money will increase the number of new sixth forms but this growth will be from a slow start.

At the same time, existing sixth forms will expand their courses, taking advantage of higher funding levels and captive 16-year-olds. The question that colleges keep raising is the impact on students.

Increasing the number of organisations offering popular A-level courses does nothing for the majority of 16-year-olds who don't take A-levels. Only 54 per cent of 16-year-olds get five GCSEs at A-C. Less than 40 per cent go on to take A-levels at 18. The choice of all young people is diminished if resources are dispersed among a wider set of institutions offering a more limited set of subjects.

The Government may talk about choice and diversity. The impact of these policies on the ground - the 16-19 changes and the 2006 budget crunch - will be fewer colleges offering less choice. It could take all five years of the department's strategy for school expansion to really get going but five years is the sort of time horizon that informs decisions on college mergers. Reorganisation for its own sake may be wrong. Reorganisation for financial survival may be the only choice available for a growing number of colleges.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges

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