By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services
In July 2015, the Government announced a rolling programme of around 40 local area reviews, to be completed by March 2017, covering all general further education and sixth form colleges in England.
The reviews were designed to:
- deliver longer term financial viability, sustainability, resilience and efficiency of colleges;
- meet the educational and economic needs of the area under review;
- enable colleges to establish stronger reputations and more specialisation;
- provide sufficient access to high quality and relevant education and training; and
- equip colleges to respond to the reform and expansion of the apprenticeship programme.
Financial sustainability appeared to be the main driver, triggered by the recent history of a number of colleges finding themselves in financial difficulties. Such difficulties are hardly surprising, given that college funding has decreased over the past seven years and competition from school sixth forms has increased, alongside a fall in the 16-19 population.
Sixth forms and academisation
One of the interesting outcomes of the area review process has been that large numbers of sixth form colleges have applied to become 16-19 academies, thus transferring them from FE to the schools sector. A major advantage of this is that it enables such colleges to reclaim VAT on the cost of goods and services. This facility already exists for maintained schools and academies, but not for sixth form colleges. Academisation of sixth form colleges also positions them to work more collaboratively (rather than in competition) with local schools.
One of the criticisms of the area review process is that it only applied to FE sector provision and so excluded school sixth forms, 16-19 free schools and university technical colleges (UTCs). This has meant that, where there is too much 16-19 provision in a given area, it is only the college sector which has been put at risk, and such provision in the school sector has remained free to expand.
Other outcomes of area reviews include:
- increased partnership working between colleges;
- making curriculum changes to rationalise the provision of minority courses and increase specialisation;
- forming joint venture companies between providers to strengthen delivery of apprenticeships;
- large-scale restructuring within colleges; and
- mergers between colleges.
Although not all of the area reviews have yet reported, and many of the recommendations from earlier reviews are still in the process of being implemented, it is expected that mergers will see a reduction of over 50 colleges, and over half of all sixth form colleges will become 16-19 academies.
The high number of mergers is likely to have far-reaching effects on both staff and students. Many students will end up having to travel further in order to study their preferred courses, forcing some to settle for local provision which, whilst being more affordable, may not be the best match for their needs and aspirations. The impact on students in rural areas is likely to be particularly severe, making it very difficult for colleges to recruit with integrity and for students to have the same range of options which can be enjoyed by those living in urban and metropolitan areas.
For staff, mergers (and restructures) often mean redundancies or greater workload (as the fewer remaining staff take on additional responsibilities to cover the work of colleagues who have been made redundant). This can lead to greater stress and poorer health, with inevitable impacts on the quality of teaching and learning.
If you have been affected by these area reviews, please let us know (below).