The government is privately worried about the ongoing delays with the Greater Manchester area review – despite skills minister Nick Boles publicly claiming in January that he was more concerned about the quality of area review outcomes than timing.
According to leaked documents seen exclusively by FE Week, the review – which involves 21 colleges and sixth forms and was one of the first to be announced – is still barely two thirds of the way through, likely due to an extended four-month gap between steering group meetings.
Minutes from the most recent steering group meeting, on April 21, reveal the government’s concern over the ongoing delays.
Mike Keoghan, director of vocational education at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), warned the group that “the pace of the review in Greater Manchester was a cause for concern within BIS and the Department for Education (DfE)”.
He said it was “critical” that the steering group agreed a final set of recommendations at the next meeting, due to be held on May 25.
Theresa Grant, the chief executive of Trafford Council, who chairs the steering group, warned in her concluding remarks of the risk that the process “would lead to a fragmentation of the colleges in Greater Manchester”.
FE Week has repeatedly highlighted ongoing delays to the review process.
Initial BIS guidance in September said a “typical timescale” for a review would be three to four months, but updated guidance from March extended this to four to six months.
Earlier this year, Mr Boles told the commons education and skills subcommittee that he was “more concerned about the quality of the outcome than whether it hits the month in the year that I initially signed off on as the plan”.
However, to date just two areas have completed – Birmingham and Solihull, in early March, and Tees Valley, on May 13.
Eight months have passed since the first Greater Manchester steering group meeting on September 21, and the April meeting was only the fourth of six planned sessions.
The previous meeting was held in December – a gap of four months.
What’s more, just two mergers have so far been proposed, according to the minutes.
One involves a link-up between Oldham, Stockport and Tameside Colleges, which could potentially also include Hopwood Hall College.
Bury College has already announced plans to merge with neighbouring University of Bolton, but the leaked minutes showed that Bolton College could also be joining them.
Ms Grant told FE Week that “we are very near the completion of the review and I and the colleges are hopeful of a positive outcome”.
Wigan and Leigh College principal Michael Sheehan announced he was stepping down for unknown reasons on April 22, the day after the meeting. The minutes now prove he was not present at the meeting.
A spokesperson for the college declined to comment on his departure.
Oldham, Stockport and Tameside Colleges have said in a joint statement that there were “immense advantages” to a merged organisation, but noted that “we are in the middle of a process” which “needs to be allowed to take its course”.
Bolton College principal Marie Gilluley said the college had “engaged fully” in the area review, and that governors were “unanimous” that the proposed merger was
“the best option to safeguard the college and its future”.
A BIS spokesperson said the timescales for the Greater Manchester area review had been “rightly adjusted” to allow the steering group to carry out all its work.
The final steering group meeting is now scheduled for June.