Steve Frampton leads a sixth form college which decided against applying for academy status following an area review. He explains here why this decision was taken and advises other senior managers facing the same choice.

The area based review process is about change – it may be your wish to be stand-alone, as we did, but this will require internal change.

For example, you will need to consider whether you plan to increase set sizes, specialise or rationalise your provision to create economic efficiencies and improvements to quality and the student experience.

Or will it involve one of several external change models? This options appraisal work informed by thorough research, cost benefit analysis and risk analysis by governors is very time consuming, and demanding.

My advice is, ensure you know the candid views of your stakeholders, especially all your governors, your students and their parents, your staff and key partners (secondary/primary schools, employers, trading partners) and the three parties who may have seats around the table: your local authority, LEP and HE sector.

You will need to identify a range of options, and your preferred option at an early stage, and be able to confidently articulate this in line with your college strategic plan, linked to your financial and accommodation strategy.

Our board — based on a community consensus viewpoint, and looking at what was best for the students in our city — concluded that remaining as a stand-alone SFC was their preferred option.

As a very innovative, rapidly growing college, in a locally declining demographic environment, they wanted to communicate this very robustly and very regularly to both the area review team, and all local audiences, including our staff, parents and students.

Staff especially valued this approach.

Financial stability for the sector is the driving force behind the area review process and colleges who are showing financial weakness enter the process under pressure to have a miracle cure for their financial ills or face merger.

Going into our review, Portsmouth College’s financial challenge was also its saviour due to the impact of the lagged funding for 16-18 growth.

Leading up to 2015/16, the growth in applications was so significant that the governing body agreed to recruit additional staff to ensure a quality experience could be enjoyed by all students in the anticipated swollen student body.

This decision was taken in the knowledge that a deficit would be incurred in 2015/16, and a financial health score of ‘satisfactory’, but in the calculated hope that there would be ‘jam tomorrow’.

The college curriculum teams were able to clearly demonstrate that the claimed efficiencies would be made and that despite further anticipated growth in 2016/17, a reasonable surplus would be posted.

Colleges who are showing financial weakness enter the process under pressure to have a miracle cure

The on-going surpluses predicted were reflected in the three-year financial forecasts allowing cash reserves and liquidity measures to improve and a financial health score of ‘outstanding’ by year three.

On April 28, our local draft area review report validated our governors’ assessment that we are a high quality, innovative, viable, resilient and sustainable stand-alone institution. We’re an agile and very responsive SFC that wants to serve all its local secondary and primary partners.

This is the most appropriate outcome for our city and our current and future students, but is by no means the right option for all other colleges and communities.

It has been a very time consuming process, especially for college principals, chairs of governors and their senior governors, and our finance director, but it has forced us to look very closely at our mission, values and future strategic direction.

It was based on a very secure understanding of our college finances, student recruitment, partnerships, curriculum offer and delivery, accommodation strategy, and staff recruitment, retention and succession planning.

This has been the real bonus for us, and brought all of our staff and students even closer together and focused on what is right for our learners now and as we go forward.

It does seem ironic that as an educator, we have learned so much from going through the process, and working with the area review team, that we might never use it again.