Alun Francis, principal and chief executive of Oldham College, explains what the recently completed Greater Manchester area based review has meant for his institution and for the region overall.

Having just completed the area based review process in Greater Manchester, we believe that for our college and our town, we have an excellent outcome.

We are part of a proposal to merge three colleges to form a new organisation in East Manchester.

The proposal has been formed collaboratively and led by professionals within the sector, but working closely with the  Greater Manchester Combined Authority, local authorities, employer organisations, the FE Commissioner’s team, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Skills Funding Agency

This approach has for us been universally positive, and has meant that we have balanced local, regional and national priorities with educational, economic and community imperatives.

Although the area review process is primarily about sustainability, it should be about much more than this.

Post-16 education and skills does need an overhaul, and in our region, this is all the more urgent if Greater Manchester is going to meet its ambitions around devolution and the Northern Powerhouse.

This is why we believe that the combined authority was right to insist that the area review be managed under the broader umbrella of the “Stronger Together” strategy of the city region.

Of course, this does mean that the process has not been without its challenges.

The reform of FE is still an unfinished masterpiece, especially in terms of resolving the “dual mandate” of general FE colleges (the tension between second chance provision and high achieving vocational education) and even more so, in terms of the status and structure of “academic” and technical and professional routes.

Furthermore, FE organisations, having developed within a rather confusing and rapidly changing policy landscape, are heterogeneous, and their tendency, in a market driven system, is to defend their territory rather than engage in collaborative system redesign.

This does mean that the area review process can descend into either stasis or opportunism, when what we need is clear vision and strategy.  

However, these obstacles should not prevent us from shaping a new forward facing system.

While it is not perfect, the area based review process is an opportunity to build the foundations of a new organisational infrastructure which can support the trajectory of reform.

By working together, through the partnership structures which Greater Manchester is well known for, we are proposing a new organisation, ready and willing to focus on building stronger technical and professional specialisms, shared across a wider geographical area, and able to deliver these on scale in both classroom and work based settings.

While small is beautiful in educational delivery, especially around the performance management of staff and students and engagement with local stakeholders, big is much better for the strategic engagement of employers and in terms of our capacity to respond to the wider economic opportunities and regeneration challenges of the city.  This is what a restructure can help to achieve, alongside improved efficiency.

We expect to see a debate about who is going to take responsibility for the 20% of school leavers who lack even basic English and maths skills

Structural reorganisation is only the start of the story, and it will need to be supported by a host of further developments, from the professional development of staff, through to the continuing reform of inspection, funding and curriculum content.

We also need a proper debate in this country about the distinctive character of vocational pedagogy. However, the value of the combined authority is that, as the area review is completed, we retain a strategic partnership for addressing these issues.

We are expecting that the skills white paper later in July will provide added impetus for the direction we are moving in.

It is probably helpful that, having been given the opportunity to merge and reorganise with their GFE cousins, sixth form colleges here have opted en masse for academisation.

This invites a more robust debate about our relative roles and our distinct and specialist contributions – issues which we believe the Sainsbury Review is going to help us grapple with.

We expect to see a debate about who is going to take responsibility for the 20 per cent of school leavers who lack even basic English and maths skills, and a debate about the extensive number of “blended” pathways which are neither properly academic or properly vocational.

These are the big issues which we need to resolve and we are pleased that in Greater Manchester, the area review has initiated the process of structural and organisational reorganisation needed to make this happen, and that with the combined authority and employer stakeholders, we have a framework for partnerships working which will ensure that we don’t stop here.