From education to employment

Ofsted: How mergers have changed the number of colleges we inspect and their inspection outcomes

students sat around tables

In 2015, the government launched its review of post-16 education and training institutions across England. One of the areas the review considered was the ‘need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers… to enable greater specialisation, creating institutions that are genuine centres of expertise’. This led to a series of area reviews which, among other recommendations, resulted in many colleges merging.

This commentary explores the mergers that followed the area reviews, starting in September 2016, and how this has had an impact on the number of colleges and the inspection profile.

How college mergers are processed

A college merger involves 2 or more providers merging to form a single institution. Each provider has a unique reference number (URN) that their inspection outcome is reported against. When the new institution is formed, one of the URNs is retained and the others are closed. The colleges are no longer inspected separately, and any future inspection activity is reported under the URN that has been retained.

A newly merged institution will appear as not yet inspected until it receives its first full inspection as a merged entity. Although this leads to a reduction in the number of colleges we report on, the original colleges remain in place, and learners still attend them. It is the structures and governance across the colleges that change, but the locations remain largely unchanged.

Mergers have reduced the number of colleges we inspect

The number of colleges we inspect has reduced by just under a third between 1 September 2016 and 31 May 2023. This is largely because 66 colleges have merged into other institutions.

Since September 2016, 114 colleges have been involved in a merger, as well as 2 institutes for adult learning. These mergers resulted in the formation of 48 colleges and 2 institutes for adult learning. The number of colleges we report on has reduced further, as 29 sixth-form colleges academised, and 4 colleges dissolved.

Of the 66 colleges that have merged into other institutions, the vast majority (62) merged into general further education colleges.

The impact on the inspection profile

A higher proportion of colleges that went on to merge were judged requires improvement or inadequate than the proportion of all colleges at 31 August 2016. This reflected the aim of the area reviews to deliver high-quality education and training.

By 31 May 2023, 42 of the 48 merged colleges had received their first full inspection. Eighty-one per cent were judged good or outstanding. This is 16 percentage points higher than the proportion judged good or outstanding prior to merging

Most colleges either maintained or improved on the grades of their constituent institutions at their first inspection after merging. There were 11 that saw a lower grade than any of their constituent institutions and were judged requires improvement or inadequate at their first inspection after merging. Of these, 5 improved at their next inspection and one remained requires improvement. The other 5 are awaiting their next full inspection.

Colleges that have not merged have also improved over the same period. At 31 August 2016, 81% of colleges that have not since been involved in a merger were judged good or outstanding. At 31 May 2023, 95% of these colleges were judged good or outstanding. This represents an increase of 14 percentage points.

Many mergers have involved colleges judged requires improvement or inadequate merging with colleges judged good or outstanding, which were then judged good at their first inspection. However, this is not the only direction of travel. There are 6 merged colleges, all made up of 2 colleges previously judged good, that were judged requires improvement or inadequate at their first inspection after merging.

Overall, due to more improvement than decline and colleges previously judged requires improvement or inadequate being disproportionately involved in mergers, the proportion of colleges judged good or outstanding has increased. Between 31 August 2016 and 31 May 2023, the proportion judged good or outstanding increased by 16 percentage points.

On 31 May 2023, there were 216 colleges (159 general FE colleges, 44 sixth-form colleges and 13 specialist further education colleges) delivering publicly funded education, training and/or apprenticeships. Of these, 209 have had a full inspection, and 92% were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection. Seven colleges are yet to have their first inspection and will be inspected within the timescales outlined in our inspection handbook.

Between September 2022 and September 2025, all colleges will receive at least one full inspection. It will be the first time that many of these colleges have been inspected under the education inspection framework. We will continue to report on inspection outcomes of all colleges in our statistical releases over this period.

Read more here.

Sector Response

Paul Joyce, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors and is the Deputy Director for Further Education & Skills, said:

“Over the past 7 years, we have seen many changes in the colleges landscape. One of the factors behind this has been mergers where there has been a drive to create larger, more resilient, and efficient colleges.

Clearly mergers are not the only solution to improve the performance of a college, but where they are well managed and staff work together and share their expertise, the overall quality of education provided does improve.”

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