The government has put up £300m to keep struggling colleges on their feet, but it’s not a hand-out for failures, writes Anne Milton

FE Week readers will know that a strong further education sector can change the lives of both young and older people. I want to do what I can to make the sector more resilient, which means helping providers prepare for future changes and rise to the new challenges ahead.

We need colleges to be financially secure and able to reinvest in learning and improving quality. The structural changes that have followed area reviews are the foundation for improvement – through greater efficiency and stronger leadership. The expanded remit for the FE commissioner, the introduction of the Strategic College Improvement Fund and National Leaders of Further Education will now bring a broader focus and greater support to raising standards – working with some of the most outstanding current college leaders.

The area review programme, and the structural changes that followed are proving to have a big impact. Our programme has identified places where FE providers would benefit from long-term structural change – and thanks to the hard work of colleges and local partners during reviews, many recommendations have already been implemented, including 42 mergers to date.

Throughout this process our priority has been making sure colleges have good leadership, manage their finances well, and are on a firm financial footing for the future. This is essential if we want to deliver high quality FE provision for all.

I know that any change can be challenging and where colleges have needed to make major changes as the result of a review, which they cannot fund themselves, we have been providing extra funds. What’s important is that young and older people are able to get the high-quality provision they need to get on. The restructuring facility is there to help colleges become financially sustainable, often through a process of structural change. To date we have approved over £300 million of funding and spent over £150 million, supporting 19 significant applications, as well as providing compensatory VAT funding and transition grants for a wider group of colleges.

“Where colleges have needed to make major changes which they cannot fund themselves, we have been providing extra funds”

The facility has made the merger between South Cheshire College and West Cheshire College possible. WCC had experienced serious financial issues, having required exceptional financial support from the government for day-to-day spending and quality issues, not to mention a previous Ofsted rating of ‘inadequate’. The merger in March 2017 meant the combined 13,000 learners are now under one leadership team which has been recently judged ‘good’. This merger is providing a solid foundation for sustainable and high-quality provision across this region.

This funding is not about propping up failing colleges. Funding from the restructuring facility is only available after a rigorous assessment to help implement changes which will result in sustainable, effective institutions. Successful applicants have to show that they have developed a clear plan, with a realistic schedule for making this happen. This must include financial plans for the next three years, with realistic forecasts for student numbers and planned income, a clear curriculum plan which meets the needs of local employers and students, a staffing plan which reflects actual need, and a strategy for making best use of their buildings and facilities.

The window for applications remains open until September 28, and so we are not yet publishing detailed information about the previous allocations. By putting the FE sector on a sustainable footing we are making sure that people can benefit from a wide range of choice and quality education, wherever they live and whatever stage of life they are at. I look forward to sharing with you how the restructuring facility is helping to achieve this later this year.

We want to provide the right framework and targeted support to help colleges become resilient, well governed and high-quality providers. We are looking at the resilience and sustainability of the FE sector at the moment because we do understand the challenges colleges face. I want to make sure that we do all we can to help them thrive and succeed.