July 2016

The know zone

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  • Progress report
    As the first recommendations from the post-16 area based reviews are announced Kevin Gilmartin looks at what has happened so far. More
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As the first recommendations from the post-16 area based reviews are announced Kevin Gilmartin looks at what has happened so far.

Progress report

For those working in post-16, whether in a traditional or new school sixth form, in a general further education college (GFE) or in a sixth form college (SFC) the phrase ‘area-based review’ seems to have been around for a long time.

For some it has already meant months of meetings and negotiations, while for others it is still “something that is due to be done to us”.

It is hard to believe, therefore, that less than a year ago none of us had even heard of an area review. So, as the first review recommendations start to trickle out, it is a good time to take stock of where we are now.


The two documents behind the area reviews were published in July 2015.

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) published Reviewing Post-16 Education and Training Institutions, which identified the post-16 education sector as being critical in raising future productivity and economic growth. At the same time the National Audit Office (NAO) was publishing its report Overseeing Financial Sustainability in the Further Education Sector. It revealed an increasing number of colleges in financial difficulty with a picture of considerable variations of costs among colleges.

The area review guidance was published in September and intended to foster more collaboration in the sector to create fewer colleges but ones that were larger and more financially resilient. The recommended outcomes were expected to include mergers, federations and other alternative structures including new ‘institutes of technology’.

Long-term savings were expected to come about through shared back-office functions, common marketing and other local outcome agreements.

If colleges ignored the recommendations and were not financially sustainable then clear warnings were given that the institutions may not be funded in the future.

Who was included?

Sixth forms in schools were not included in the scope of the review (the inclusion of school sixth forms, 16–19 free schools and 16–19 academies was left unclear in the guidance with their provision merely needing to be ‘taken into account’) and many commentators argued that the review could never be considered as meaningful if the school provision was not part of the mix.

What compounded matters for many was that not only were school sixth forms not in scope but new sixth forms were being allowed to open while the review process was actually being undertaken.

To many this was a clear indication that the principal aim of the review was less about co-ordinating sixth form provision and more about rationalising FE provision in an attempt to secure its long-term financial sustainability.

What was the intended process?

The guidance indicated a programme of approximately 40 area reviews in five waves, covering the whole country. They would be undertaken by March 2017 and implemented by 2020.

The process was to involve five meetings covering the background to the review, the curriculum, the college estate and shared services, finance and structures, and the way forward. Each review was to be supported by two-day site visits and analyses and was to be led by a local steering group over three to four months.

The area reviews in wave one began between September and November, wave two in January and wave three in April. Inevitably, the timings slipped and the process has now been extended to four to six months. Unwieldy review meetings of 50-plus people have not been uncommon but waves one and two have finally been reaching their conclusions.

First to report was the Birmingham and Solihull area review, which ended in early March with one proposed merger. Second was the Tees Valley Combined Authority, which recommended three mergers involving five GFEs and one SFC.

Other mergers, federations and collaborations have been confirmed or proposed outside of the review process – perhaps indicating the attitude of many colleges to “get in early and fast”, often before the reviews had even started in their area.

Of the process so far, many involved would point to the mistake of starting before certain key building blocks were in place. These unknown quantities included the outcome of the autumn comprehensive spending review, the criteria for setting up an institute of technology, the route to 16-19 academisation for sixth form colleges, the existence of a restructuring fund to help finance merger or other recommendations and the Sainsbury Review of Technical and Professional Education (TPE).

The process has certainly shaken up the sector and what will emerge down the line will be considerably fewer GFEs and SFCs. It is also likely that sixth form provision in schools will be rationalised.

Last summer’s announcements have certainly shaken up the sector. As the holidays approach, let us hope that this summer will be distinctly quiet by comparison.

Kevin Gilmartin is ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist