Jump or be pushed
According to the official guidance for the wave of college area reviews sweeping across England, participation is voluntary and governing bodies will be free to decide whether to go along with any recommendations made.
But with any colleges refusing to cooperate likely to be subject to serious consequences, not surprisingly most of them are choosing to play along. Indeed, plenty of colleges seem to have decided to leap head first into their own mergers before they are pushed into less palatable partnerships later on.
Just last week, Shrewsbury College, Shrewsbury Sixth Form College and New College Telford announced merger proposals to form what they described as “the largest sixth-form college in the country”. On the same day, Hackney Community College launched a consultation on proposals to merge with Tower Hamlets College. And plenty more institutions have unveiled plans for partnerships of their own free will, from Prior Pursglove and Stockton Sixth Form colleges in the North East to Westminster Kingsway and City and Islington colleges in central London. At this rate, there won’t be much work left for the area reviews to do.
‘Going well’ – but for whom?
Nonetheless, minutes from the recent meeting of the national area review advisory group state that the reviews already happening are “going well”.
But although “cooperation from colleges had been good”, the document adds that there “could be improvement in the longer-term thinking of college officials, with colleges being uncommitted in saying what changes they think should be made (eg, in curriculum, financing and staffing) and what contribution they can provide to improve future educational delivery in their area.”
What, those obstructive colleges are being hesitant in expressing strong views in a process that is designed to result in the most radical overhaul of FE provision since incorporation? Outrageous. Who do they think they are, standing in the way of the drive for “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers”?
Interestingly, the minutes also note that FE adviser Marilyn Hawkins told the meeting: “In the reviews to date, there had been little evidence of curriculum duplication within areas.” Perhaps there may not be quite as many efficiency savings to be made as ministers are expecting.
While colleges from Southampton to Stockton-on-Tees are already in the throes of area review mayhem, the 50 colleges in Greater London are still waiting for their turn. But earlier this month, principals and chairs of governors gathered at City Hall for a briefing on the process. Rather than a single area review, London will be divided up into five sub-regions, with a pan-London steering group taking a capital-wide view of the process. In Manchester too, FErret understands, sub-regions are being created to make the city-wide review process more manageable. It also transpired that the reviews in London are expected to begin in the spring. Now there’s something to look forward to.