Coventry colleges planning three-way merger before Warwickshire area review closes

The FE Commissioner has endorsed a three-way merger plan between colleges in the Midlands, even though concern is rising in the sector that too many providers are being rushed into joining forces.

Dr David Collins’ new report on City College Coventry has concluded that there appeared “to be no insuperable barriers to progress” its plans to join-up with neighbouring institutions, based on a visit from his team in February.

The merger would involve nearby Henley College, and Hereward College — with all three part of the Coventry and Warwickshire area review, which only very recently had its first steering group meeting, on May 4.

However the University and College Union’s head of FE, Andrew Harden, told FE Week that “too many college mergers are being put forward” in haste, as poor solutions “to financial issues brought about by government funding cuts, or to pre-empt the outcomes of area reviews”.

He said: “Partnership working can bring benefits, but rushed or forced mergers based mainly on financial or sustainability concerns risk stripping away local learning opportunities and disenfranchising large groups of learners.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, also criticised the speed of the mergers, claiming that colleges joining forces before final area review recommendations were released made “a mockery out of the whole process”.

Skills Minister Nick Boles himself warned in parliament last month against colleges rushing into mergers ahead of area reviews.

FE Week reported on April 7 that 15 mergers were on the cards during 2016, and more have been announced since then, including a link-up between Lowestoft and East Norfolk sixth form colleges.

Dr Collins’ report on City College Coventry noted the board’s view that the FE offer in Coventry “is not organised such as to give maximum benefit to students and the local economy”.

Amongst the recommendations it made, it said: “The college should work with them [the other two colleges] to consider methodically a full range of options for creating a robust FE curriculum for Coventry, including relationships with higher education.”

The three colleges said in a statement that their dialogue, “though still at an early stage, is proceeding well and developing along productive lines”.

The statement added: “None of this activity means that the Coventry colleges have closed minds as far as the area review is concerned.

“However, we feel there should be a strong, distinctively Coventry component to any realignment of FE in the region.”

Dr Collins’ report also found that City College Coventry, which has been hit with two inadequate Ofsted ratings in three years, was “clearly failing too many of its students”, but that it had “a number of strengths which, if deployed vigorously and over time, can turn this institution around”.

A spokesperson for the college told FE Week that it had been “involved in a fundamental review” of its priorities since November, and had taken advice from a “wide range of stakeholders” including the FE Commissioner.

“We found that process extremely useful and constructive, and our improvement plan addresses all of the recommendations made in the report,” the spokesperson said.

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