Inspection results show advantages of mergers, while competition between colleges and schools has a negative impact
Size matters for colleges - that is the message of new research into the post-16 education system which defends the race to establish mergers between FE institutions.
A study commissioned by the CfBT Education Trust says that a college with a budget of pound;35 million is likely to have half a grade advantage in the four-point Ofsted inspection system over one with a budget of pound;5m.
The conclusions contradict John Denham, the skills secretary, who questioned the desire for mergers at the Association of Colleges' conference last year, saying: "There is no evidence that larger colleges provide a more effective education."
Education consultants Adrian Perry and Mick Fletcher, the study's authors, examined the performance of 229 of England's colleges in Ofsted inspections and plotted it against their size.
They found that larger colleges had a clear advantage, with improvements being most marked between small and medium-sized ones. A group of small tertiary colleges were also scoring highly. "It is striking that the three groups of colleges that do well - small tertiary, sixth form and very large - are all under pressure from current government policies," the report said.
The study argues that establishing individual strong institutions is not enough and that more needs to be done to create a coherent system, rather than pitting colleges and schools against one another.
Colleges which faced little or no competition were among the best in the country. Four of the top seven inspection results came from small tertiary colleges facing no real competition.
Where two colleges provided distinct curriculum choices, such as between vocational and academic sixth form provision, they also rated highly. Finally, very large institutions such as Newcastle College, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College and City of Bristol College, which can dominate their local post-16 market, had notably good inspections, the study found.
Tony McAleavy, education director of the CfBT Trust, said: "Pressure on institutions to compete, coupled with the absence of strong central leadership, has created a variety of incoherent systems in some local areas.
"While individual institutions in one area might be considered excellent, collectively they can fail to meet the needs of some young people. This is damaging to learners and particularly so to those lower down the ability range."
l The threat of FE's first forced merger has receded after the Lear-ning and Skills Council proposed a compromise. St Vincent College in Gosport, Hampshire, was oppos-ing plans to merge with nearby Fareham College over fears of diluting its sixth form college ethos and concerns about the strength of the new institution.
The new plans, to be submitted in September, will provide a new sixth form college, with extra support drafted in to cover the transitional period.
Professional body's first chief executive
Toni Fazaeli this week starts in her job running the new professional body for FE lecturers. She becomes the first permanent chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), the new compulsory membership body.
Ms Fazaeli, 52, (above) comes to the institute from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills where she was a deputy director in charge of FE workforce development, managing 11 civil servants.
She said: "In the same way that other professionals of high social standing, such as doctors and lawyers, are members of professional bodies, so the IfL will be that first port of call."
Ms Fazaeli is married to Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. She has four children and four grandchildren and is a secondary school governor.
Educated at Ilkley Grammar School in West Yorkshire and at the universities of Kent, Leicester and Birmingham, her career includes teaching, community work and being employed as an inspector by the Further Education Funding Council, later replaced by the Learning and Skills Council.
Photograph: Christian Trampenau.