Area Reviews Scrutinised by Education Select Committee
The Education Select Committee heard evidence today from the FE Commissioner and three Chief Executives who have gone through Area Based Reviews in their regions.
The session, chaired by Neil Carmichael MP, addressed the length and breadth of the reviews, as well as questioning the long-term impact they will have on further education provision.
Speaking on behalf of the reviews covering Greater Manchester, London and Warwickshire were Theresa Grant, CEO of Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, Andy Wilson, CEO of the new WKCIC Group, and Angela Joyce, Principal and Chief Executive of Warwickshire College Group.
The session kicked off with all three witnesses agreeing that the Area Based Reviews were happening in too tight time-frames and to complete them on time was, according to Theresa Grant, “overly optimistic” and “not achievable”.
The witnesses all seemed to agree that the process had been worthwhile but not without its challenges, which included not involving a wider 16 to 19 landscape, too many stakeholders around the table, and not enough focus on the outcomes of learners.
Theresa Grant argued that the focus on financial sustainability alone would not deliver longevity, but it was essential for colleges to also deliver the right products in the same way that businesses are run. She also added that it was important that future skills were delivered in the right place, for the right employers, at the right time.
Angela Joyce also raised concerns that the reviews were providing a medium-term solution at best, and would not help to tackle the long-term issues affecting FE. If the process was repeated, Joyce said it should include all 16 to 19 providers and focus on provision rather than finance.
Andy Wilson, who has overseen the merger of City and Islington College and Westminster Kingsway College to form the new WKCIC Group, acknowledged that larger colleges will be more likely to be financially efficient and this security is important for improving delivery and driving improvements.
Despite this, he said that it was a shame the main focus had been on finance, as this had detracted from looking in more detail at collaboration. In his opinion, the biggest disappointment of the reviews was not hitting the priority of matching FE infrastructure to economic and business needs – something which the FE Commissioner would later argue is the starting point for all reviews.
Angela Joyce agreed that larger colleges could be more financially sustainable, and that Warwickshire College Group had been able to invest more money in transport to support travel to learn patterns as a result of merging the group with South Worcestershire College. She argued, however, that the reviews would not be able to protect colleges from insolvency regimes likely to occur in the future.
The second part of the evidence session saw the Committee question the FE Commissioner Sir David Collins, who is soon to retire from his role and be replaced by Richard Atkins CBE.
Sir David explained that the starting point for each review included an economic and social assessment of the areas, including looking at meeting learner and employer needs. He said that more evidence of what local employers needed would be beneficial, particularly to know whether they have approached their nearest colleges about those needs.
Sir David added that the division between employers and colleges needs to be broken down so colleges are able to keep up-to-date with employer needs and access new equipment to ensure they are training people in preparation for the jobs available.
When pushed for a figure, the FE Commissioner estimated that the number of colleges would be reduced by around 70, but did not expect there to be the same reduction in campuses as most of the savings made will be in back offices such as shared HR, finance and marketing services.
He also disagreed that the reviews – which he confirmed would be completed on time by 29 March – had been a costly process, suggesting that the potential gains will outweigh the costs and make the reviews “good value for money”.
On a final note, Sir David said he thought that the change of mood and direction brought on by the reviews had been welcomed by the sector as a whole, and no colleges had said they didn’t want to be involved in the process.
You can watch the two evidence sessions on parliament.tv here.