Chris Thomson reflects on how a longer than expected post-16 area review process is giving time to focus on how to improve FE in their regions.

Whether you believe the area based reviews are progressing quickly enough or not depends on whether you think our colleges are more like a motorbike than a mouse.

The Minister appears to be of the former view and at one time may even have wanted the area based reviews (ABRs) completed before Christmas.

Colleges have an awkward tendency to behave much more like organisms than machines

That is fair enough if you think of colleges as machinery.

You can do what you like to machines and they never object or obstruct you. You can reasonably expect step-changes in their performance, as you can very quickly adjust their gearing or the power supply.

The problem with this view of colleges is that they are run by governors and principals — human beings.

Colleges therefore have an awkward tendency to behave much more like organisms than machines and so from a Minister’s point of view can very easily seem as refractory as camels and frustratingly slow to respond to the Government’s will.

The principals arriving at our first ABR meeting were probably evincing an all too human response to what they’d read about ABR.

By and large, they were baffled at all the reasons adduced for the process, nonplussed as to why savings were sought before rather than after the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), incensed by the Minister’s original preference not to include them, frustrated by the exclusion of school sixth forms, doubtful of the benefits of structural change, and fearful of what was about to be done to their colleges.

Not, that is, raring to get stuck in to a change programme, thank you very much.

So the prospect of progress, never mind expeditious progress, must have seemed a rather elusive and gloomy one to the commissioners and team who had gathered to greet us.

Yet three months into the process, although some objections remain — notably in regard to the exclusion of school sixth forms — there is genuine co-operation from the colleges.

This has happened because of the paradigm the Commissioners have chosen to adopt — to work with rather than on the colleges, an approach that has been felt perhaps in three ways.

First, although it remains perfectly clear the ABR team will present us with their recommendations at the end of the process to which we will be obliged to respond, steering group discussions have focused on facilitating, not enforcing, solutions.

Secondly, all the ambiguity in the ABR documentation has been resolved into the simple, compelling question, are we making the best use of the available resources in this area?

And thirdly, it is becoming clear that the definition of ‘best use’ has every bit as much to do with the quality of provision to learners and employers as it has to do with financial sustainability.

Attention is being paid to the leadership of those involved in the process as well as to the mechanics of the process itself.

You might object that the atmosphere in which the work is conducted is totally irrelevant to the purpose of ABR.

I think that would be a mistake. If all involved are engaged and committed to answering the question we’ve been set it is likelier we’ll identify improvements that are beneficial to learners and employers. What could be more important than that?

From their point of view what is vital is that the ABR process produces good outcomes, rather than quick outcomes.

It is not yet certain that ABR won’t cost more than it saves, demonstrably the case that some college finances are not fixable through ABR outcomes alone and equally certain that structural change is no guarantee against further financially costly failures in leadership and management.

This being so, we should be doing all we can to ensure that at the very least ABR produces genuine and sustainable improvement in provision.

If that takes a month or two longer to devise than the instruction manual advises, no learner or employer will grumble — whatever may be said in Westminster.