One of just two mergers recommended in the troubled Manchester area review has been scrapped following intervention by the FE commissioner, FE Week understands.

Plans to merge Tameside, Oldham and Stockport colleges have been called off after the FE commissioner Richard Atkins visited at least one of them – forcing them back to the drawing board.

The proposal was made at the end of a nine-month process riven by deep tensions between the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the colleges involved.

Both Oldham and Tameside colleges have told FE Week that the merger is “not going ahead”.

“All three colleges are now considering alternative options”, a spokesperson for Oldham College added.

Oldham received a financial notice of concern from the Skills Funding Agency in November, triggering intervention from Mr Atkins and his team.

FE Week understands that the commissioner made a number of recommendations, including changes to its merger plans, although these have not yet been published.

A formal structure would not achieve our longer-term aims

Meanwhile, Stockport College has already found an alternative merger partner, and is in talks with nearby Trafford College.

Trafford was due to have joined the LTE Group alongside Manchester College, but this plan has now also fallen off the table.

In an email dated February 3 and seen by FE Week, Trafford’s principal Lesley Davies told staff that the merger is expected to go through at the end of December and that she will lead the merged college.

Trafford’s chair Graham Luccock confirmed that the college was in “early discussions” with Stockport over a possible merger

He said the college had reviewed “possible options in detail” with the LTE Group but had “decided that a formal structure would not achieve our longer-term aims”.

But he added: “We fully support the aims for the Manchester area-based review”.

The new merger plan comes after Stockport was rated ‘inadequate’ in an Ofsted report published in November.

It’s not known whether the report triggered a visit from Mr Atkins’ team, as the college had previously been subject to intervention from the FE commissioner.

The college was placed in administered status in December 2013 following a visit from Mr Atkins’ predecessor Sir David Collins, and it’s unclear if this was ever lifted. FE Week asked Stockport College for a response, but was told that the only person who could comment was its principal Simon Andrews, who was out of the country.

The college’s deputy principal was not fully briefed on matters relating to the college’s merger plans, and the college chair was unavailable, a spokesperson said.

As previously reported by FE Week, the Greater Manchester area review has been one of the most problematic of the reviews of post-16 education and training.

It began in September 2015 but didn’t come to an end until June 2016 – making it the longest of the reviews so far – and caused serious ructions between the colleges and the GMCA, which chaired the process. Despite 10 general FE colleges and 11 sixth form colleges taking part, it ended with just two proposed mergers involving five colleges.

In a statement seen by FE Week in June, the GMCA said it “remains to be convinced” that the proposed outcomes would meet the skills need for Manchester.

The final report into the Greater Manchester review, published in November, said that the three-way Stockport, Oldham and Tameside merger would create a “new post-16 institution which focuses on progression to high quality technical education and training”.

But it acknowledged that “Stockport College is financially weak, and all three colleges were graded ‘requires improvement’ in their most recent Ofsted inspection”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education would not be drawn on whether Mr Atkins recommended that the colleges change their merger plans, saying: “The FE commissioner is working with Oldham College and stakeholders in the area.”

Theresa Grant, Trafford Council’s chief executive, who chaired the Greater Manchester area review on behalf on the GMCA, declined to comment.

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