Earlier this year, Paul Joyce, deputy director of FE and Skills at Ofsted raised concerns that the area review process is ‘taking the focus off the day job’, putting quality of provision at risk. Louise Doyle, director at online education quality assurance QA toolkit specialists MESMA, doubts that there is a college principal in England who would disagree.

The approach to inspecting and grading complex college structures once again came into sharp focus in September with the long awaited outcome of the NCG Ofsted inspection. NCG has lobbied for individual colleges within the Group to be awarded separate grades for some time – surely, an approach not too dissimilar to schools in academy trusts, who already receive a grade specific to them as opposed to the overall trust.

The argument for individual grades as opposed to an overall corporation grade is that the latter means little to parents, students and in the case of FE, employers. The other of course being why poor performance in one should negatively affect the grading of another, when it has little day-to-day relevance beyond senior leadership.

While this end goal for individual ‘campus’ gradings is yet to be realised, the move to allow NCG to submit separate data for each constituent part by both the SFA and EFA has to be seen as an important trailblazer for those colleges set to grapple with such considerations as an outcome of the area reviews.

Any review, as those affected already know, is likely to see a rationalised curriculum delivered by fewer colleges. The desired outcome is more homogenous and financially resilient organisations where back office functions and learning delivery systems are shared wherever practicable.

The resulting pressures on senior leaders are significant both in terms of time and energy: ensuring quality remains paramount during the process and post review is of course understood but nevertheless challenging.

Whatever happens, the ideal of the local community FE college equipping people with the skills to meet the needs of employers is under strain in some parts of the country like never before.For some colleges a merger is the only way to survive; creating more collaborative links or merging with another FE institution presents the most viable option of balancing cost-cutting against learning, teaching and assessment.

While financial issues, and the drive to deliver cost savings, are usually front-of-mind for senior management and leadership teams during any merger or transformation process, the matter of quality assurance - and how to secure it – must take equal priority.

It should of course be critical at all stages, not only because it appears Ofsted are starting to pose questions about measuring quality assurance for post merger colleges but also and more importantly because in the long run, the success of collaborative FE drivers will stand or fall on the quality of learning provision that enables students to thrive, realise their potential and lays the foundations for successful careers.

Where quality assurance is concerned, shared support services in principle makes sense. Unpicking culture, policies, processes and software solutions in different organisations is no easy task. There is, once again, commonality with the challenges faced by academy trusts and schools who are facing similar deliberations about the management, co-ordination and reporting of ‘quality’ related activities.

So, how can leadership teams prepare for delivering a consistently good approach to quality assurance during and after a merger? Ensuring that the accountability for monitoring the quality of provision permeates throughout the merged organisation is an obvious starting point. Quality cannot be consigned to a sideshow to the main event.

There is no single ‘right’ future model for colleges to follow but the success of any one approach will be in the ‘hard yards’ of preparation, planning and final implementation. Bringing institutions together and by association, their systems does not necessarily mean that everything has to be integrated and harmonised unless there are benefits in doing so.

New collaborations and structures tend to be more successful where the decision to change has been taken on logical and evidence-based grounds, subject to rigorous assessment and careful implementation. These can create valuable economies of scale, protect and improve student access and progression, and address issues of improving quality standards.

Advocacy

There is considerable advocacy for ensuring robust self-assessment and quality improvement plans are in place. It is why we are in the business that we are in. These are activities at their best, undertaken for the benefit of learners and not simply to satisfy external inspection requirements.

They are processes, which drive accountability for reflective practice and cohesive, impactful action. The foresight to understand how quality improvement plans can and should change to benefit from collaborative relationships is the domain of senior leaders, listening to staff to identify good practice that can be widely shared and providing the channels through which staff can explore these in a supportive environment.

For us, perhaps selfishly, we see in these new organisations the scenario with which we envisaged an online QA toolkit being of added value. It removes the paperwork, allows ease of information pertaining to quality of provision to be shared and above all, provides a platform peer review and support, stripping back a process that on occasions can seem too over-blown, bureaucratic and centred on a reporting output rather than a process of improvement.

This notion of quality remaining at the forefront throughout changing organisational structures is a view echoed by Stuart Rimmer, principal of Great Yarmouth FE College and a former director of quality at a leading North West college. He supports the assessment that those “colleges who merge or are considering such a move, will only see their reputations and positive public image sustained or enhanced on the back of high quality standards. In the final analysis, this is what really counts to parents, students and employers”.

Quality assurance cannot be an afterthought; it has to be embedded from the outset of any merger and at the forefront of the conversations and negotiations that surround the process. After all quality impinges on everything and cascades down to impact on every aspect and function of a college. Simply put, the long-term success of any post merger college will be built on foundations that include a high dosage of quality.

Louise Doyle, Director at MESMA

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