Revealed: The UK's largest college groups

Almost half of the largest FE institutions in the country are outside England, with colleges in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making the top 10

Stephen Exley & Julia Belgutay

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Their growth has been slow, but college groups are predicted to expand over the coming years. Today, Tes reveals the largest 10 colleges across the UK.

Analysis of college accounts has revealed the biggest organisation in the FE sector in 2015-16 was the LTE Group, the “integrated education and skills group” created by The Manchester College in 2016, which boasted an income of £187 million. The group also consists of: distance and online learning provider MOL; Total People, which offers workplace learning; and Novus, a provider that delivers skills to people furthest away from education, including through prison-based learning. The group employed 3,450 people in 2015-16.

In second place was NCG. The Newcastle-based organisation, the biggest group in 2014-15, was pipped to second place after it saw its income drop by more than £40 million in 2015-16. The group said this could largely be attributed to the winding down of the Work Programme and the end of a European Social Fund contract. However, NCG has since merged with Carlisle College. It has also been announced that it is due to merge with Lewisham Southwark College in August.

Chief executive Joe Docherty told Tes that he expected more groups would grow due to a "supportive" policy environment. But he added: "Getting bigger isn't in our strategy; getting bigger isn't a strategy. We're very much driven by our purpose. If a college joining our group furthers that purpose, we will consider it. We wouldn't rule anything out, but we don't approach other colleges."

What may come as a surprise, though, is that only six of the 10 biggest colleges in the UK last year were in England. Scotland’s City of Glasgow and Edinburgh colleges, Grwp Llandrillo Menai – which oversees three colleges in North and West Wales – and Northern Ireland’s Belfast Metropolitan College were among the UK’s biggest FE organisations in 2015-16 (see table, below).

Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group, said the sector had to “face up to the fact that the business model of old, of a large number of small colleges, is not an efficient model any more”.

“If you look at some of the other things the government is focused on, like institutes of technology and the Sainsbury review, the idea of a regional college group begins to have currency,” he added. “It is about how we create a model that allows flexibility and adaptability, while also being financially sustainable.”

The importance of delegation

Dame Ruth Silver, founding president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, said she expected that the big players in the sector will “spread their tentacles” in the coming years.

“In many ways, [college groups] are more strategic [than smaller, merged colleges],” she said. “People underestimate the management time that goes into mergers, and with groups, it is often much more strategic … From my experience, they allow the local [provision] to flourish, and they almost build a community of colleges and providers.”

biggest college groups UK

This is an edited version of an article in the 12 May 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. Your new-look Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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