Once a month, Dr Sue, director of policy and external relations at Holex, answers your questions, backed by her experience as principal of Canterbury College and in senior civil service posts in education and skills.

Question One: Area review intervention

I have just spent 18 months in area review meetings. Although we had already managed a successful merger, we were still encouraged to play a full part, but this distracted us from our implementation plan and we have lost ground. Do you know if others feel the same and has the initiative met its goal?

Answer: I’m afraid many governors like you feel that there has been an opportunity cost, that they have been distracted from implementing their plans and, in some cases, capital plans have been put on hold. The government expected the area reviews to “enable a transition towards fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers, and more effective collaboration across institution types”, but while we may end up with fewer colleges, whether they are more financially resilient has yet to be proven.

Although the reviews are complete and each area has been left with an action plan including a list of expected mergers, many of these plans are unravelling.

In retrospect, it may have been too ambitious to try and take a country-wide blanket approach. The original problem of financially unstable colleges could have been addressed through a targeted approach. I also think we will regret that sixth forms were not included in the equation because at some stage that will have to be addressed.

 

Question Two: Conflict of interest

Our merger has raised an unexpected issue. We have inherited two senior management teams and wanted our new chief executive to lead a restructuring of the senior staff. But due to staff changes made at the last moment in our merger partner organisation, the CEO’s spouse is in scope of the senior leadership restructuring. What advice can you give?

Answer: I take it that the promotions made just before the merger were appropriate and in scope of any terms of engagement which had been agreed. If you are satisfied they were, then you must make sure the process of selection for the new roles is as clear and transparent as possible.

You haven’t said whether these are senior post-holder roles, if they are then it will be for governors to lead the selection process. The CEO will have a perceived conflict; there could be a financial interest and therefore they cannot take part in the selection process or in agreeing any terms of redundancy if the spouse is unsuccessful. There will also be line management and performance appraisal issues which will need to be handled by another, for instance the deputy chief executive.

To ensure there is no animosity, you need to talk the situation through with the chief executive, explaining this is about protecting reputation and ensuring appointments on merit. For fairness, the same conversation should be had with the spouse.

 

Question Three: Post-merger Ofsted

We are just about to merge and are working through our risk assessment. As we will not be visited by Ofsted for three years, it has been hinted that we don’t need to focus too much on quality measures but instead on merger transition issues. I am not comfortable with that approach. What is your view?

Answer: Merging two colleges is extremely time-consuming and to get the efficiency gains that are expected, it is important to have an agreed management implementation plan. As governors, your role is to set the strategic direction, monitor quality and ensure the expected practice is implemented, as detailed in the Ofsted inspector framework.

The guidance explains that “a newly merged college will normally be inspected as a new provider within three years of the merger. And, any newly merged college may receive a monitoring visit or support and challenge visit to assess risk. This is more likely where previous provision has been graded as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ or is giving cause for concern. Also, if there are concerns arising from other sources this may lead to an earlier full inspection.”

Therefore, this is a vital role which cannot be put on ice because of merger issues. It is important you find the time to undertake the same level of scrutiny that you have previously.