The government has been crystal clear about the need for structural reforms (spending less on FE, curriculum rationalisation, higher and technical specialisation and financial sustainability) and their desired outcome is fewer and more financially sustainable institutions [read: colleges]. The status quo is not an option.
Rather than take you through the pages and pages of policy intention and guidance, covered on feweek.co.uk and also elsewhere in these very pages, I wanted to focus on what is missing and what those in the Offices of the FE and Sixth Form Commissioners, or indeed any Local Enterprise Partnerships (Leps), local authorities or colleges wanting to instigate a review, should not forget.
Talking to learners is essential
It’s inevitable when you have FE principals, Leps, local authorities, regional school commissioners and employers around a table, they will talk about information, advice and guidance. While not a core objective of Area Reviews, there will be implications around learner choice and accessibility of provision nonetheless. There will be issues Area Review teams probably wouldn’t consider without insight from learners around issues such as quality, progression opportunities, student support and transport.
An ‘Area Review of Post 16 Education and Training Institutions’ that only looks at colleges won’t be worth it
If you’re a training provider, local authority provider or higher education institution, the provision you offer will be looked at as part of a review’s analysis of what’s available to learners and employers, your performance and financial data will be analysed by a local steering group, but you’ll only be subject to recommendations if you opt-in. Achieving consistency across all Area Reviews is cited as a key responsibility of the FE and Sixth Form Commissioners and a big part of that has to be about who is in scope. Having neighbouring reviews, one of them fully involving training providers and Universities, while the other only looking at FE and Sixth Form Colleges, leaves the whole process open to criticism later down the line. More than that though, the reviews should be empowered to make recommendations covering all provision that contributes to the economic growth and wellbeing of areas, people and businesses. Which leads on nicely to…
Nothing to say on community learning?
The absence of any reference to adult and community provision should be a cause for concern, primarily because the reviews are about economic contribution and what this could mean in the spending review. If community learning provision is not in scope for Area Reviews, then it gives no opportunity for local areas to, unless they choose to, objectively analyse the economic (in its widest possible sense) impacts this provision delivers for people and businesses. You can see how in areas with higher proportions of older people, for example, benefit from people who can be economically active for longer, and reviews should be able to demonstrate how important a lifelong learning infrastructure will be as our population gets older.
Saving money doesn’t just mean FE cuts
There is a danger that Area Reviews focus very narrowly on the impacts of post 16 provision in local areas using direct economic metrics around productivity, business growth or earnings in isolation of the wider benefits that learning brings to communities that save people, businesses and the public sector money. If you’re going to deep-dive into the economic impacts and potential that post 16 education and training does and could deliver for a local area, you should also look at things like changing demographics, crime, social care, health services and migration.
Area Reviews are not going to be the mechanism when we win the argument that Central Government spending on FE is an investment, not a cost, but they can empower local areas with their own resources to make things happen.
Not starting from scratch
The Area Review policy documents have dramatically under-estimated the amount of rationalisation, integration, specialisation and collaboration that colleges in particular have already delivered in the last five years. The sector never stands still and so it’s right that, given this experience, college leaders play a principal role throughout the review process.