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Reviews seen as fair ...but foul

Principals tell FE Focus survey that they fear many colleges are set to lose funding to alternative providers. Steve Hook reports

Principals say reviews of post-16 education around the country are being conducted fairly - even though many expect colleges to lose out financially.

An FE Focus survey of college principals this week shows that, despite some discomfort about the way the strategic area reviews have been conducted, 67 per cent say the process is fair, 25 per cent say it is unfair, and 8 per cent are undecided. This is despite the fact that 30 per cent of principals think colleges will be worse off, losing business to other providers. Only 5 per cent thought they would be better off.

The reviews come out of the Department for Education and Skills' Success for All strategy and involve each of the 47 local learning and skills councils looking at the balance of post-16 education in its patch. This includes examining the way LSC funds are distributed between colleges and other "providers", including school sixth- forms, work-based learning and adult and community education.

The reviews also look at the relationship between FE, schools and higher education. The survey drew the opinions of 125 principals from further education - including sixth-form and general colleges.

Ian Wilson, principal of Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I college, in Leicester says the review itself is fair but the data being used varies in quality between colleges and other providers. He says: "The data available on colleges is much more thorough than that for schools and work-based learning, thus making fairness very hard to achieve."

John Tredwell, principal of Worcester sixth-form college, says: "It is likely to result in the same amount of money being spread more thinly as 'gaps' are identified." His conclusion is that the review was conducted fairly, but his college will be worse off.

It seems that for some, the process is fair only in that it is equally bad for all parties involved. "The exercise is deeply flawed, but not unfair," says Ron Pugh, principal of Walford and North Shropshire college.

Those who think the reviews are unfair include John Rocket, principal of Rotherham college, who says: "The subcontractor doing the work has not visited us. It is a desk exercise, which supports the hypothesis that the conclusions were formed before the research was done - rather like an Ofsted inspection."

For one principal, the review will end a period of uncertainty. Chris Thomson, principal of Brighton, Hove and Sussex sixth-form college, says:

"Completion should at least overcome the 'planning blight' issue caused by suspending all planning because the strategic area review is pending."

Another principal, who asked not to be quoted, says: "The whole situation is a mess. Strategic area reviews are being carried out under 47 different models."

The survey also showed that two-third of principals think there is threat from the emergence of school sixth-forms.

There is also concern about the balance between colleges and work-based learning providers. The survey showed 43 per cent of principals think the balance is wrong, 23 per cent think it is right and 34 per cent "don't know".

The LSC refused to comment.

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Research by Patrick Hayes

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