Issues with colleges’ “long-standing unsustainable debt” have been highlighted by the FE Commissioner as a key cause of hold-ups with post-16 education and skills area reviews.

Dr David Collins (pictured above) made the point in a letter, dated March 18 but published online by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills today, that went out to all chairs and principals of “corporations and FE institutions”.

It said the area reviews had so far been “a remarkably smooth process with corporations engaging fully in the new collaborative approach to provision”.

But he conceded: “Wave one has taken longer in some cases to come to a conclusion than was hoped, complicated by the devolution agenda and the fact that some of the more difficult areas were included.

“Communications within colleges with staff, unions and students as to the process and the benefits for learners and employers has been variable and could clearly be improved,” said Dr Collins.

He added that “the long-standing unsustainable debt positions of a few colleges have created delays while new solutions have been sought”.

FE Week revealed that wave one of the area reviews was running behind schedule in early January.

We reported that, according to the government’s own published guidance, reviews in Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester, and Sheffield City region, which began in early September, ought to have been wrapping up in February.

However, they appeared to be barely half-way through the process.

The government’s guidance on post-16 education and training area reviews, published in September last year, also gave a “typical timescale” for a review of around three to four months.

However, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told FE Week on January 5 that they only expected the first areas “to be moving to analysis of options and recommendations over the next month or two”.

The other areas involved with the first wave of area reviews are Tees Valley, Sussex, Solent, and West Yorkshire.

FE Week understands the final steering group meeting for the Birmingham and Solihull review was held at the start of March — but the conclusions drawn from this have not been made public.

Dr Collins singled out boards of governors at colleges for praise in his letter published today.

“Credit must go in particular to the governing bodies and chairs of the various institutions, who have taken on board a significant amount of extra work and have been prepared to put the interests of learners and employers ahead of those colleges for which they are responsible.

“Without their hard work and commitment relatively little would have been achieved.”

The FE Commissioner also recognised the major role being played in the area review process by local enterprise partnerships and local authorities.

A spokesperson for the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: “Dr David Collins acknowledges in his letter to chairs and principals that there have been some delays with Wave 1 of the area reviews.

“It is good that he recognises some areas where the process needs to be improved.”

BIS was unable to comment on the letter ahead of publication.