Why reviving the college-led SPA could see the sector through a challenging time

The college-led structure and prospects appraisal has lost popularity but it could be just the ticket to taking back control, writes Ian Valvona

The college-led structure and prospects appraisal has lost popularity but it could be just the ticket to taking back control, writes Ian Valvona

17 Jun 2023, 5:00

Workload has sped up for college boards recently. Accountability agreements, LSIPs, annual conversations with DfE, external governance reviews. Meanwhile, worries about quality, finances and big estates plan (more on these later) haven’t gone away for many, maybe even most.

You’ve been worried for a while that something could go wrong. Then something does. DfE conducts an assessment through the FEC team and its last recommendation is a commissioner-led Structure and Prospects Appraisal (SPA). That’s it. You’ve lost control of your future.

How did it come to this? The board is split, maybe feeling blindsided. It’s not really much use now, but you’re having strained conversations about how you could have headed off this situation.

The answer to that question is a college-led SPA. A SPA is a process to follow if you are considering anything from major structural change to a significant alteration of your delivery model. It doesn’t have to be focused only on merger.

Outcomes of a SPA might include federation or looser collaborative models, withdrawing from or locally merging key areas of provision or, of course, no change at all. If you’ve got a nagging doubt that your college could be vulnerable in future then trust your instincts. Get ahead of the curve and get answers for yourself. Run a SPA through a committee that reports to the Board.

At the very least, it will be useful as you approach your next annual conversation with the DfE. Something in the back pocket. It’s ten years ago now, but the business, innovation and skills department (DBIS) published guidance for colleges on how to conduct them that is still relevant.

Another good reason to do this is that reclassification could still result in further centralising behaviours from DfE in response to almost palpable anxiety around colleges’ financial grip. Now feels like the right time for colleges to take back some control.

I believe the two London Colleges I chaired between 2018 and 2023 were well served by commissioner-led SPAs. They were in almost uniquely difficult circumstances, but merger was the necessary outcome for both. Nevertheless, I do sometimes wonder what their alternative futures might have been if they had determined to take control of their own destinies.

Get ahead of the curve and get answers for yourself

When I think back to the huge pressures on executive and non-executive leadership through those years, I also wonder what steps leadership in colleges local to those two colleges could have taken collaboratively to preserve, enhance and protect the leadership bandwidth that we know is so precious in the sector.

Just as important to protect are the people who embody that bandwidth. One of the main worries for chairs today is their duty of care to their principal and chief executive. The association of colleges is rightly speaking up about these pressures. Collaboration and mutual support are surely central to the response, however it’s formalised (or not).

The DBIS guidance details a few triggers chairs should consider for commissioning a college-led SPA. Interestingly, it doesn’t prominently pick out large capital estates schemes. In my experience, however, any significant capital scheme should almost automatically warrant board consideration of a college-led SPA. It’s no coincidence that my last detailed estates conversation with a college leader segued imperceptibly into musing about merger.

The role of the board, and the chair in particular, is key. Harder-edged structural changes that come about outside of intervention are invariably driven by the chief executive, sometimes communicating with DfE/FEC. It is all conducted in highly private, perhaps deliberately non-transparent ways.  That’s understandable, but chairs and boards really need a greater role up front.

Perhaps I am just tripping over process, but I believe it’s important (and uncodified) process. In local and regional contexts, college-led SPAs could be discussed transparently first by chairs, and then commissioned to chief executives by chairs and their boards.

To work, it would require groups of like-minded chairs and boards, prepared to put aside competitive instincts. But that should be achievable. After all, they are the essence of the corporation. Ultimately, they own the blueprint for FE education and training delivery in their local areas, and do so in the best interests of all students and their whole community.

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