Enjoy mania for mergers while it lasts

1st August 2008 at 01:00

Well who would have thought it? Newcastle College, the country's biggest since its takeover of parts of the failed Carter and Carter private training empire, has astonished the further education world again with its controversial approach to mergers.

Eyebrows were raised when the principal, Jackie Fisher, presided over the merger with struggling Skelmersdale College - there having been widespread scepticism about how two institutions 163 miles apart by road could be made to work as one.

It is perhaps too early to judge whether the Carter and Carter deal is a success - but, in Skelmersdale, Ms Fisher can now claim to be the principal with the Midas touch.

After a little missionary work from across the Pennines, the Lancashire college has enjoyed an astonishing improvement in its Ofsted grades.

Meanwhile, merger mania - very much a hallmark of further education since the Learning and Skills Council was created in 2001 - continues apace.

Just recently, the Colchester Institute announced it will be joining forces with Braintree College, down the road in Essex.

The next big year in the history of mergers will be 2010, ironically, when the Learning and Skills Council is replaced by two separate funding arrangements - for 16-18 and 19-plus. Will the rate of mergers be slowed down as the number of organisations with a stake in colleges - two quangos and local authorities across the country - is vastly increased?

The time taken to make decisions is always going to be affected by the number of organisations involved - and it would be reasonable to assume that the merger rate will slow down after 2010 - particularly when prospective partners may sit in very different local authority areas.

This being the case, should we regard the FE sector of the future as a stagnant pool or an oasis of calm? A bit of both.

In Newcastle's case, big has indeed been beautiful. But many smaller specialist colleges, which the LSC has placed under pressure to tie the knot for purely financial reasons, will be pleased not to have cupid standing behind them with a shotgun.

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