Along with funding concerns, one of the most pressing issues for any college principal will be the impact of the government’s area reviews into post-16 education.
With the first wave of reviews under way, few would dispute that there are challenges ahead for further education. Change is happening and for some of England’s colleges, the journey towards closer collaboration or a more formal merger with neighbouring institutions has already begun.
Skills minister Nick Boles wants to create greater specialisation in FE, with the establishment of genuine centres of expertise, able to support progression up to a high level in professional and technical disciplines.
This could be the start of a fundamental shift for the sector, if the experience of colleges in Scotland is anything to go by. A similar exercise north of the border, which began in 2011-12, resulted in 37 colleges coming together to form 20 institutions across 13 regions.
Here are some of the key success factors that we have identified from working with colleges in Scotland that have gone through the same process.
1 Focus on students first
Top of the list is the importance of putting your students at the centre of all decision-making. The best advice is to go back to basics, as all decisions will be much simpler if you start with making teaching and learning exciting and engaging for your target market. This, after all, is what will attract the best students through the door and keep them engaged throughout their studies, which is the financial lifeblood of a strong FE college, regardless of its size or shape.
2 Get staff on board quickly
There has been recognition among colleges that have gone down the merger route that any period of transition can be unsettling for staff. Those colleges that have managed change most successfully have kept their staff on board from the start by communicating openly and transparently with them.
Effective communication is especially important when teams are working in several different locations under the banner of the same institution.
3 Engage parents and employers
Colleges have told us how important it is to forge strong links with parents when you are going through organisational change. This has often been vital for helping parents to understand and value the changes that the institution is making and can, in turn, boost student recruitment. Similarly, working more closely with local employers and keeping them informed of developments has enabled colleges to build firm foundations for successful apprenticeships, work-based training and future student employment prospects.
4 Improve processes
One of the hidden advantages of merging with a neighbouring institution – according to leadership teams that have been through it – is that you get the opportunity to improve efficiency in preparation for running a larger entity.
They recommend taking the time to look at how systems and processes could be improved. With more student applications to manage, for example, moving the whole thing online can save hours of staff members’ time. Taking advantage of economies of scale when purchasing resources and learning materials can cut costs, too.
5 Evolve, don’t stagnate
There is a golden opportunity for colleges in transition to look at how they can be more effective at keeping students engaged and motivated to achieve. Successful colleges are continually innovating – for example, by encouraging students to keep track of their own attendance and progress to help them become more independent learners or developing flipped classrooms to enhance teaching.
The key message seems to be that if you have to change, you may as well use the opportunity to take a fresh look at how you run the college from the ground up and see what can be improved.
It may be the most challenging and uncertain of times for the FE sector. But storms inevitably subside and those colleges that successfully manage the inclement weather will be in a stronger position to provide their students and the wider community with a post-16 offering that will serve them well for many years to come.
Nigel Rayner is director of further and higher education at Capita @Nigel_Rayner