The government has been warned its “hastily put together area reviews have all the ingredients of being yet another Conservative Government shambles” with membership of their “unwieldy” steering groups potentially swelling to around 45.
Dozens of college governors’ board chairs, joined by either their chief executives or principals, and officials from local authorities take part in each steering group.
Also attending will be members of local enterprise partnerships (Leps), the FE Commissioner, the Sixth Form College Commissioner and Regional Schools Commissioners, not to mention officials from the Department for Education (DfE) and also the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
It’s a situation that has led to criticism from Shadows Schools Minister, and former Scunthorpe college principal, Nic Dakin.
He said: “These hastily put together area reviews have all the ingredients of being yet another Conservative Government shambles.
“The steering groups look very unwieldy. And the reviews don’t have to involve all post-16 providers in an area with sixth forms, UTCs, free schools and others left out.
“Finally there is no clarity where any additional money will come from to implement any outcomes. So at first glance it has all the ingredients of another fine mess.”
Invite lists among the first meetings to have been held for the Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester and Sheffield city regions featured, according to FE Week sources, no fewer than 25 members.
And the second lot of area reviews, announced on September 25, could see steering group memberships of more than 40 with, for example, 13 colleges involved in the Solent area review covering 11 local authority areas.
The Sheffield review involves 10 colleges and among them is Longley Park Sixth Form College, whose local MP, Harry Harpham, said the number of meeting attendees could affect the quality of decision-making.
“I am concerned that having 25 members is far too many to be perfectly honest and I believe it is unmanageable,” said the Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough.
“If you have any group with over 12 to 13 members then you run into management ability issues. My experience is that you should get a group up to 13 as a limit to make proper decisions and have proper debates.”
The situation has also drawn criticism from former chief executive of the FE Funding Council from 1997 to 2001 David Melville, chair of Pearson Education Ltd and governor of Manchester Metropolitan University, who also said that school sixth forms should be included in the area reviews.
He told FE Week: “It is very difficult with such wide-ranging interests, some of which are conflicting with the exercise, to reach a sensible conclusion.”
He added: “I think it’s an ill-conceived exercise in that it’s clear it’s doing something it’s very difficult to do — review post-16 education without taking into account schools sixth forms.
“It doesn’t make any sense to not do this and the government is trying to make it look like it’s all-embracing.”
The first meeting for the Birmingham and Solihull steering group was on September 18, Greater Manchester’s was three days later and Sheffield’s was on September 28.
Of the second lot form the first round, Tees Valley was on October 1, Sussex Coast was due on October 22 and Solent was due on November 5.
A spokesperson for BIS and DfE said it was a “matter for steering groups to update their own meetings and progress, which they will do in due course.”
Lost at sea
The area reviews have a fundamental problem that won’t be easy to mend. Colleges are being reviewed in Lep area groups. This makes for both an unworkable and illogical process.
Take the Solent area review for example.
It is unworkable because the Lep area includes 13 colleges with 13 principals and governing bodies with a combined turnover of £190m, 3,558 staff and 64,000 students.
So they are being asked to navigate and launch an area review implementation plan within three to four months. A plan that will need to satisfy 11 local authorities, the LEP board, both commissioners, BIS, DfE, the Regional School Commissioner and presumably Skills Minister Nick Boles. Aside from a drunken sailor, who would think that this is achievable?
It is also illogical to create a college area review on Lep boundaries. For example, Brockenhurst College and South Downs College are in the same Solent Lep and yet 40 miles apart. Whereas the sixth form colleges of Richard Taunton and Totton are in different Leps in the Solent region — and therefore different area reviews — yet just five miles apart.
Before more time and money is diverted away from delivering courses and pointed towards consultants, the government needs to lower the anchor.
Or has the boat from Portsmouth College to the Isle of Wight College already set sail?
FE Week editor