Solving the merger mystery

Solving the merger mystery

A proposed college merger in the Midlands made the FE Week news pages earlier this year after the intervention of Skills Minister Matthew Hancock. Chris Henwood looks at the national picture of mergers over the past few years

When Skills Minister Matthew Hancock sent a letter to every college chair and principal in England reminding them of the rules about merging, there will have been few, if any, who failed to sit up and take notice.

Accountability, consultation and competition were key to his advice, four months ago, that came not long after his officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) looked at plans for two colleges in the Midlands to become one.

The proposals for Stourbridge College and Birmingham Metropolitan College came under the spotlight to “establish if appropriate processes have been followed”.

The principal of a local college claimed he had found out about the proposals on Twitter, while another questioned whether there was any need for the merger, which has since gone through — with Mr Hancock’s blessing.

David Nolan, chair of Stourbridge College Corporation, said: “The board of governors at Stourbridge College unanimously voted in favour of merger after considering the wide range of benefits this would create for our learners, including greater choice of courses, improved facilities and enhanced connections to employers and the jobs market.”

A BIS spokesperson said: “Stourbridge Corporation has responded constructively to our concerns by demonstrating why it considers the merger to be the best option for learners, local employers and the community.

“The corporation has now gone through the proper process and undertaken a college structure and prospects appraisal as set out in New Challenges, New Chances.”

But just how common are mergers?

Six took place last academic year, according to information to supplied to FE Week by BIS, and eight the year before that, but in the year starting September 2009 there wasn’t one — although Bicton and Exeter Colleges thought about it.

Meanwhile, the Stourbridge and Birmingham proposal is one of just two in the current academic year to the end of April.

The second is between Ludlow Sixth Form College and Herefordshire College of Technology, and both involve one of the colleges dissolving before its assets shift to the other (Stourbridge dissolved on May 31 and Ludlow is due to do the same at the end of next month).

Such dissolution is the norm, but Norfolk’s Easton College and Suffolk’s Otley College were both dissolved in August last year followed by the incorporation of Easton and Otley College, despite a 47-mile trip between the two. Filton College and Stroud College took the same path earlier in the year, resulting in the South Gloucestershire and Stroud College.

However, mergers aren’t always a done deal. Newcastle College and Northumberland College,  and City of Westminster College and College of North West London (CNWL) also looked at merging, but all decided against it in the end.

If that sounds like there may be growing caution over mergers, possibly since the minister’s intervention in the Midlands, it shouldn’t.  Some are under consideration now, including North East Worcestershire (New) College with Worcester College of Technology.

A joint statement by the New and Worcester colleges said: “A Joint Options Group will lead an accountable and open process . . . Any proposals resulting from these discussions must bring clear benefits to students, the local communities and employers.”

Meanwhile, “collaboration” is up for discussion between Middlesbrough College and Gateshead College.

In a joint statement, the chairs of Middlesbrough and Gateshead, Bob Brady and Robin Mackie, said: “We would be delighted if we can bring the collective strengths of our colleges together.

“This would give us the opportunity to take a more regional perspective working with our funding bodies, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and others for the benefit of students, staff, employers and both local communities.”

The federation model

Kingston College and Carshalton College considered merging in early 2010, but opted instead for a federation model the following year. They formed the Kingston and Sutton Educational Partnership, sharing central services but maintaining individual identities.

Peter Mayhew-Smith, partnership principal, said: “We looked at different approaches from other sectors and saw that schools and universities had made good use of more flexible structures, creating partnerships without any loss of identity or service to the local community.

“I was also worried that a merger could slow our rate of improvement. We felt this would be best for both our colleges, and constructed a relationship with a shared services company and a leadership team spanning both colleges.

“In setting this up, we saved around £1.2m — against our combined turnover of £45m — from our management costs.

“It was challenging, though, as we had to ask our excellent staff to take a leap of faith with us and enter into new ways of working, while the different cultures and practices of the two colleges don’t always sit comfortably alongside each other.”

But, he added: “I’m very proud of the effort and imagination colleagues in our federation have brought to bear on these challenges, making it successful so far, although there’s still plenty to do.”

And just over five years ago, Dick Palmer (pictured) foresaw sector change from his principal’s office at City College Norwich, prompting the formation of the Ten (Transforming Education in Norfolk) Group of educational institutions, including City College Norwich, City Academy Norwich, Wayland Academy and Norfolk University Technical College.

Mr Palmer, who moved from college principal to group chief executive last summer, recognised the growth in the number of 14 to 16-year-olds going to college — “so we started thinking about how we could manage the relationships with schools that much better,” he said.

“We also saw the potential growth of academies and how that could be quite competitive with us as a college, and we saw a real political move towards public services becoming shared.”

He added: “I would advise any principal thinking about merger or any similar move to start your conversations with your staff, other organisation and other stakeholders really, really early.

“Be clear about what your vision is and what the outcomes are and why you’re doing it — is it for student outcomes and success rates or is it for financial reasons — and don’t spin it. Be frank, open and ambitious.”