Ofsted data suggests that the entrepreneurially focused institutions belonging to the Gazelle College Group are underperforming compared with the sector as a whole.
The group was formed in 2012 as a way to offer students real-world business experience as they learned. It has grown rapidly from its five founding members to encompass 23 colleges - 20 in England and one in each of the devolved nations. But according to information taken from the inspectorate's online "data dashboard", those in England are failing to excel.
The 2012-13 figures reveal that most Gazelle colleges perform poorly in the "value added" category for level 3 vocational courses. This measures the difference between a student's estimated performance and their actual results.
The level 3 value-added outcomes are a key indicator of student progress and college effectiveness, yet 15 of the 20 Gazelle colleges are in the bottom 40 per cent of all FE and skills providers inspected in England for vocational courses. Five come in the bottom 20 per cent.
Furthermore, although nine Gazelle colleges have been rated as good under Ofsted's revised inspection framework, which was introduced in 2012, none have yet gained an outstanding rating. Four have been judged to require improvement and one, LeSoCo in London, was graded inadequate.
According to recently published data from the Skills Funding Agency, 10 Gazelle colleges also recorded budget deficits in 2012-13. With each member college paying the Gazelle group pound;30,000 plus VAT every year, serious questions are now being asked about the purpose and benefits of membership.
At its annual congress last year, members of the University and College Union (UCU) passed a motion calling for urgent research into the organisational practices and financial affairs of Gazelle.
Andrew Harden, UCU's head of FE, said the amount of time and money that colleges were putting in to their membership of the Gazelle group did "not appear to be paying dividends".
"We would like to know just how much of a distraction it really is. How much time are staff putting into Gazelle activities at the expense of the day-to-day business of running a busy college?" he said.
"The colleges involved seem quite disparate, so we are unsure what exactly they get out of their association. Marketing and branding might be one element, but we remain of the opinion that substance triumphs over style when it comes to measuring success."
One FE figure, who asked to remain anonymous, told TES: "The Gazelle movement seems to have gained momentum, yet their underperformance against the sector goes unnoticed and needs challenging.
"Many of us in the sector feel the agenda is being hijacked by a small, unrepresentative group, which appears to be influencing the policy of government. Many of these colleges setting themselves up as advisers to business are ailing commercially and are saddled with debt."
Sharing the wealth
But Fintan Donohue, chief executive of Gazelle, said the benefits of membership lay in sharing ideas and resources across the group and on an "unprecedented scale".
He added that the group supported the transformation of all colleges, not only those that were already rated good or outstanding. "Our colleges share a long-term commitment to developing a new entrepreneurial model of delivery for a different employment landscape," he said.
Mr Donohue admitted that in a "young and fast-growing" group of colleges, "natural disparities" in performance would occur. But he argued that sharing knowledge, curricula and resources throughout the group would spread best practice to the institutions that needed to improve.
"We recognise that colleges will progress at different speeds in capitalising on these lessons but, over time, the best can influence those with further to travel," he said.
Mr Donohue pointed out that Gazelle colleges featured prominently in Ofsted best practice reports and made up the majority of those featured for enterprise outcomes.
"The criteria of Ofsted inspections are continually evolving, and we are pleased to note that they are already moving towards a greater emphasis on employment, employer partnerships and enterprise," he said. "We anticipate that our colleges will grow to deliver outstanding outcomes in this regard."
Although Mr Donohue accepted that the level 3 value-added scores were an important measure of success, he said that they were not necessarily reflective of overall performance.
In level 2 outcomes, 13 of the 19 Gazelle colleges with available data are in the top 60 per cent nationally and none in the bottom 20 per cent. At level 1, 11 Gazelle colleges come in the top 40 per cent and none in the bottom 20 per cent.
In addition, Mr Donohue insisted that qualifications were no longer enough in themselves and that Gazelle wanted to create outcomes valued by both students and employers.
"We are not saying we have achieved this, but we are certainly creating competitions, experiences and learning environments that increasingly meet those expectations," he said.
Mr Donohue added that Gazelle believed few colleges were capable of meeting financial challenges alone and that the future lay in sharing resources and investment.
"A culture of wealth creation will be fundamental if colleges are to become financially sustainable in an era of diminishing public funding," he said, adding that Gazelle wanted to lead the way in using innovative business partnerships to develop new revenue streams.
A different beast?
The Gazelle Colleges Group was formed two years ago by five further education colleges.
Gazelle - named after the business jargon for lean start-up companies - claims it is developing new learning environments that "blur the boundaries" between education and work.
It says its colleges are trying to give their students an entrepreneurial mindset; to be confident, innovative, resilient, enterprise-aware and willing to "have a go".
What this means in practice is students taking part in various initiatives including national enterprise competitions and conferences, and working closely with local and national businesses and entrepreneurs.
Gazelle believes that focusing on innovation and being willing to "reinvent the traditional college model" can bring success and financial security to its members.