15th January 2016 at 00:00
Area reviews in review

While many in the FE sector were enjoying a well-earned break during the festive season, it seems the area reviews stop for no man. Ahead of the next wave of reviews starting this month, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ team was busy typing up and sending out minutes from the advisory group meeting between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And while we’ll have a while to wait for the first finished documents to be signed and sealed, there were plenty of nuggets in there for the sector to digest.

All about the money

The government’s initial suggestion was that any mergers and structural changes resulting from the area reviews would have to be paid for by colleges, councils and local enterprise partnerships. But it turns out that some transitionary funding will be made available.

A restructuring fund will help institutions pay for major changes, and a separate pot of cash has been secured to “support the academisation of a proportion of sixth-form colleges if applications were supported by local area review steering groups”.

As the news about academy conversion only came to light part way through the first wave of reviews, not surprisingly some delays are expected. At the time of the meeting in early December, the Birmingham and Solihull review was “looking at academy options prior to submission of recommendations in January 2016”.

Exactly how much money will be available – and what proportion of college academy conversions the Department for Education is expecting – remains to be seen. More guidance is expected shortly, but the meeting was told in no uncertain terms that any prospective academy conversions “will need to be focused on what is right, not just for individual colleges but also the wider provision for learners across the whole area”.

Thanks but no thanks

One of the main criticisms of the area reviews has been that only colleges were obliged to take part, with school sixth-forms and other FE providers able to opt in but under no compulsion to heed the reviews’ conclusions and recommendations. The government’s stock response has been that wider provision would be considered in the best interests of the educational needs of the area in question. Not quite the same though, is it?

“Exactly how many adult and community learning providers have decided to voluntarily opt in to the ongoing reviews so far?” I hear you ask. Well, um, none at all, as it happens. No surprise there.

Transparency in action

Given the somewhat furtive nature of the reviews process so far, observers could have been forgiven for wondering whether any of the findings would ever see the light of day. Well, FErret can confirm once and for all that the area review reports and recommendations will be published.

“It is important that the area review process is open and transparent, and that findings and lessons learned from each review can be shared to inform the next wave of reviews,” the assembled representatives from across the sector were told at the most recent advisory group meeting. FErret will naturally be glued to gov.uk to bring you the results as they come in.

Trading places

While colleges are assigned to a particular review covering their locality, this is not set in stone, it transpires. Those that can provide “solid economic or educational reasons” can request to move to a different area. Similarly, areas can ask for their review to be put back to a later date if they can come up with good reasons to delay the process. Don’t all rush at once now…

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