FE Area Based Reviews

15 August 2017


In July 2015 the government published a policy statement setting out its approach to a programme of Area Reviews of post-16 education and training institutions designed “to establish the appropriate set of institutions (colleges and providers) to offer high quality provision based on the current and future needs of learners and employers within the local area”.

Further guidance on the area review process was published in September setting out a national framework within which areas such as London would have the flexibility to adapt the approach to Area Reviews to “take account of local circumstances and requirements”.

In light of this, the London government (the Mayor and the boroughs) worked with the central government, in consultation with the FE sector, to develop and agree an approach to Area Reviews in London.

Note: In considering the London approach and how it may influence the process and recommendations of London’s area reviews, it is important to note, that General FE and Sixth Form colleges are statutorily independent bodies and it will be for the governing bodies of each institution to decide whether to accept the review’s recommendations.

Given the scale and complexity of provision in the capital, the London Area Review will consist of four sub-regional reviews, each with its own steering group:

  • London West
  • London Central
  • London South
  • London East

Sub-regional steering groups will report to a London Steering Group, which will oversee and be responsible for the London Area Review as a whole. The London Steering Group will take a strategic view to ensure that the London Area Review delivers a sustainable, resilient base of institutions, and quality post-16 skills provision to meet London’s economic and social needs.

The London Steering Group is chaired by the Mayor, and deputy co-chaired by a borough leader and LEP business representative.
Sub-regional steering groups are chaired by a nominated borough Leader representing all of the boroughs within the sub-region, and deputy chaired by a business representative.

Aims of the Reviews

The Reviews are based on the idea that efficiency savings can be made in post 16 provision, most specifically, in FE and Sixth Form colleges. It was expected that savings could be made in:

  • Staffing costs (support staff and management were cited as particularly vulnerable) around sharing services and duplicate management structures
  • Teaching Staff costs could be generally reduced only in regard to duplication of curriculum provision

The Government (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)) believe that Area Reviews should create 'larger more resilient colleges' through:

  • Rationalizing the curriculum
  • Sharing post 16 provision
  • Avoiding duplication of services or curricula

This, of course, means that colleges are expected to merge, or form broader governance structures. The new Area structures should meet the aims of potential learners in the Area (up to a 50 mile radius to map provision in some cases).

Impact of the Reviews

The intended impact of the Reviews was likely to lead to 30-40% of colleges being lost as singular institutions – in line with the SFA report on financial sustainability of FE colleges. The impact on Sixth Forms could be even more radical with the Government opening the door for Sixth Forms to become 16-19 Academies and accountability transferring to the DFE.

When they were launched in July 2015, the area reviews were expected to result in a huge number of college mergers.
According to the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the aim of this mass rethink of nationwide post-16 education and training was to create “fewer, larger and more resilient” colleges.

Early predictions from the then-FE commissioner Sir David Collins were that the number of colleges could drop by a third once the process was over, with up to 80 mergers taking place.

Current Status

Published reports into the first three waves of the reviews, which involved 138 colleges and 70 sixth form colleges, revealed firm recommendations for just 37 mergers – a number that is likely to fall even further.

FE Week analysis in May 2017 has further revealed that more than a quarter of these proposed mergers – 11 of the 37 – have either fallen through or changed since the reviews ended. It’s not always clear why these unions aren’t working out, and in many cases, the colleges involved simply won’t say. But when a college partnership falls apart, the weaker party is often left needing to find another merger partner just to secure its future. This could be because of poor finances, a bad Ofsted rating or because the college is too small to survive in the longer term.

MacIntyre Hudson has experience on both sides of the fence, both assisting merger plans but also helping clients resist merger pressure from funding bodies through robust reporting and creation of forecasts and strategy plans. Please get in touch if you feel this is an area where we can assist.

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