It is supposed to be the membership body for "large, highly successful colleges" - but now the 157 Group has had to admit that not all its members are such high-flyers after all.
Recent inspections have seen three of the 27 member colleges decline in their Ofsted grades from "good" to just "satisfactory" for leadership and management, below the 157 Group's membership threshold.
The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, St Helens College in Merseyside and the Sheffield College all saw their grades fall. Another, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, maintained its grade 2 for leadership, but saw its overall grade fall to "satisfactory".
The group's annual report from 200809 makes it clear that members were required to maintain a high Ofsted leadership rating as a condition of membership, which allowed the group to describe itself as representing highly successful colleges.
"All 157 Group members meet certain criteria that mark them out as being outstanding in the sector. The first criterion is that the college must have at least a grade 2 for leadership and management, based on the last Ofsted assessment," it said.
The group initially changed its criteria to allow grade 3 colleges to stay on. But with St Helens last month becoming the third to drop a grade, group chairman Frank McLoughlin said: "This is a serious matter for 157." Members and officers are set to reconsider their approach.
Executive director Lynne Sedgmore said that sometime after that 2009 annual report was published, the original criteria had been "dissolved" as the organisation increasingly focused on peer support.
It continued to publicly define the membership by their success, however, although Ms Sedgmore now described it as a "majority group of highly successful colleges".
Ms Sedgmore said: "When 157 started we agreed the initial criteria based on size and leadership inspection grades, but these were always a proxy to ascertain a basis for membership and for our capacity to promote the whole college sector and an ability to influence key people.
"We recognised that to do that job effectively, we had to be able to work together as a group and support each other and that the original criteria were possibly too simplistic and might need to change with time and new directions of travel.
"We believe it would be counter-productive and wrong to disengage from members when they are going through temporary rough patches, particularly in the early days of complex mergers."
The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London was formed in August 2009 from Enfield College and the College of North East London. Ofsted gave it a grade 3 for leadership in January this year.
Despite the abolition of the entry criteria, Ms Sedgmore said the group would not be seeking the membership of other large colleges with satisfactory Ofsted grades, or indeed others with good or outstanding ratings.
"A key reason why we keep our numbers to a maximum of 30, despite many requests to join, is we do not choose to compete with the AoC (Association of Colleges), and that number is optimal in literally sitting around a table, effective communication and rapid response," she said.
She denied that the group's influence with policy-makers would be diminished by diluting its claim to represent only elite performers.
"We know we are well regarded as a group in our work on influencing ministers, policy matters, our case studies, our think pieces and when we promote the sector as a whole, particularly on issues that affect large urban colleges," she said.
What does 157 add up to?
- The 157 Group represents 27 colleges, originally chosen for having a turnover of over pound;30 million and a grade 2 from Ofsted for leadership and management.
- It was named after paragraph 157 in Sir Andrew Foster's 2005 review of FE, which called on larger, successful colleges to play a bigger role in influencing policy.
- The group's members employ about 30,000 staff and have around 250,000 students between them.