On the third Monday of every month Dr Sue, who is the Holex director of policy and external relations, answers your questions, backed by the experience of almost a decade as principal of Canterbury College, in addition to time served in further senior civil service posts at the Department for Education and Employment, Department for Education and Skills, and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
I responded to some queries about area reviews in my Dear Dr Sue page last month and since then I’ve received lots more questions on this from college governors.
It seems to be the only topic on people’s minds at the moment. I suppose this is to be expected, but shouldn’t we be worrying about the spending review and making it clear to those who can influence funding decisions that any further cuts could be devastating for our post-16 education services?
Nevertheless, I seem to be falling into the same trap, because all three of the questions I am responding to this month are around area reviews.
Who is covering the cost of area reviews — not just the cost of the analysis and any mergers etc., but the opportunity cost as well?
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is covering the cost of the reviews, which are being undertaken by the FE and Sixth Form College Commissioners.
The Combined Authorities are meeting the costs of the ones which they are doing. The cost of implementing the recommended outcomes (for example, any mergers or the setting up of shared services etc) will be borne by the colleges involved. It is expected this will come from efficiencies and savings made later. Your question about opportunity costs is very relevant as the reviews will take up a considerable amount of senior management time which could have been used to source new business or improve the learner experience. There appears to be no fund in BIS to which you can bid to cover any opportunity costs. It will be really important for governors to consider from day one the cost of involvement in an area review and to have the recommendations that come out of the review fully costed.
My college is based in London. Is London going to be treated as one single area for the purposes of area review?
The London review will be led by the Mayor of London working with the leaders of the London boroughs. The team working on this is consulting on what the shape the review should look like. I would have thought London’s skills requirements can only be met by a sub-regional approach. That would probably mean at least five area reviews. There will be issues with boundaries, student travel patterns, and regional employers — but I don’t see any other way of dealing with this properly.
If we don’t agree to the area review outcomes, can the Secretary of State do what the Scottish Education Minister did recently to a Scottish College and remove us from our roles as Chairs and Governors?
I do not know the detail of the particular college in question, nor would it be right for me to comment on that detail if that were the case but, significantly, in Scotland the colleges are no longer classified as independent/private sector organisations. Since 2013, they are managed more directly by the Education Department and chairs are appointed by Scottish Ministers. As such, it is easier for them to be removed which is not the case in England. Colleges in England are exempted charities and as such are covered by Charity Law.
In England, the relevant Secretary of State acts as the Principal Regulator and has a role in letting the Charity Commission know of any issues and could intervene if there were substantial concerns that a college is being mismanaged and/or its Board of Governors was thought not to be acting in the best interest of the charity.
However, the guidance on area reviews is very clear; it is for governing bodies to decide and it will be for their boards to take the decisions on ensuring the long-term stability of their own college. So, provided you act within Charity Law, take the decision collectively, and demonstrate how you have the considered all the options surrounding the area review, you should not have to worry.