With reviews of FE provision across England getting under way, Nigel Rayner looks at whether any lessons can be learned from the Scottish experience of college reviews.

Hot on the heels of the government’s statement that it wants to see ‘fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient’ providers of FE in England, a number of colleges have already announced plans to join forces.

And there’s little doubt that more will likely follow, either as ‘closer collaborations’ or more formal mergers. In Scotland, FE is coming out the other side of a similar initiative and few would argue that the sector has been transformed. From a funding perspective, the 37 colleges that existed in 2011-12 have been merged into 20 institutions, which are organised into 13 regions.

Having worked closely with some of these institutions during their transition, their experiences demonstrate that change can also bring the opportunity to improve the student experience and ensure a stronger post-16 offering for the future.

An analysis of the 2013 and 2014 college finance records submitted to the Skills Funding Agency and Education Funding Agency suggests that around one-in-four English FE colleges is managing to thrive and grow both their income and surplus, in what some might describe as among the most challenging educational landscapes in recent years.

There are some important lessons English colleges can learn from the experiences of their Scottish counterparts when it comes to achieving a successful merger

This underlines an important point. Regardless of their geographical location, there are some common factors that successful FE institutions share, whether they are stand-alone or have been merged with other providers.

They understand the needs of their local region, ensure they run efficiently and most importantly, engage with students, staff, employers and other stakeholders to attract and retain students.

There are some important lessons English colleges can learn from the experiences of their Scottish counterparts when it comes to achieving a successful merger, some of which are outlined below.

Firstly, ensure transparency. For a partnership to work, staff across all institutions involved need to be kept fully informed each step of the way to help encourage ‘buy-in’ and support for the process. A culture of change can be difficult to embed in any organisation, but good communication is a vital starting point.

Secondly, consider the student at every step. It’s easy to get bogged down in details of how internal processes will work post-merger and risk losing sight of the student. With student experience being critical to successful recruitment and retention — and therefore funding — it’s essential to consider the impact of every change on current and prospective students.

Thirdly, little issues in a smaller organisation will be exacerbated in a larger one, so they need to be tackled. For one Scottish college, there was a real need to address poor student retention. On merging, they introduced electronic registration, which not only saved time, but staff could monitor students’ attendance more closely. This meant they could quickly spot any student who wasn’t turning up regularly and take action.

Don’t just do what you’ve always done, is next. Look at new ways that will help a larger organisation run more efficiently. Some Scottish colleges used their merger as an opportunity to move the whole applications process online, for example. Use the change as a chance to review which processes are eating up many hours of administration time and therefore costs.

And finally, and above all, address learners’ needs. Post-16 education in Scotland has been on a complex journey and some tough decisions have been made along the way. However, it is important to underline that as the story continues to unfold, there are positives. The Audit Scotland report, published earlier this year, found that reforms have had a ‘minimal negative impact’ on students and English colleges should take encouragement from this.

No matter what the future holds, students must remain at the heart of FE and, as always — whatever shape or size they take — the most successful colleges will be the ones that focus unerringly on improving the student experience.