The fifth wave of the area reviews process has kicked off and the progress of FE reform remains under a bright spotlight.  

With Vince Cable recently suggesting that mergers may not be the best solution for colleges, many principals preparing to navigate their institutions through the area reviews process will be feeling increasingly uncertain of what the future might hold.

But a group of colleges at different stages of the area reviews process offered some clarity when they came together to share their thoughts on how further education providers can stay one step ahead. As part of the event, which was chaired by Ioan Morgan, former chair of the 157 Group (now the Collab Group) and hosted by Capita Further and Higher Education, colleges offered their guidance on taking greater control of the process and maximising the opportunities change can provide.

Here are some key pieces of advice from the colleges.

1. Play to your strengths

Know your college inside and out. The institutions that will emerge the strongest from the area reviews process are those that recognise the core strengths of their provision, as well as the areas that require development.

This is the ideal time for you to consider how your institution is likely to be viewed by an area review team. Be confident in challenging perceptions – don’t settle for being recognised for the quality of your college’s engineering or social care training, for example, if you can also demonstrate the institution’s success in getting art students into university. 

2. Identify positive potential partnerships

Take proactive steps to investigate the institutions you might consider for a potential merger – why wait for the area review team to make a recommendation?

One college at the event had started looking at other providers in the area which offer similar or complementary courses, and initiated conversations about a joint further education offering. A delegate from another institution described how his college had put together a list of possible partners and visited them before drawing up a shortlist of possible partners.

3. Seek out your institution’s champions

Reach out to your college’s stakeholders and engage staff, students and parents in your journey through change, thereby gaining strong ambassadors for your institution. Making connections with local charities and community organisations will ensure your college has champions who will boost your reputation beyond the college gates.

Build strong relationships with local employers and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) too. This will help your college to enhance its reputation locally and take full advantage of the apprenticeship opportunities on the horizon. One college invited the CEO of a local business to join its board of governors. Another seconded a member of staff with a local employer one day a week to deepen the college’s understanding of the business and put strong foundations in place for a successful future partnership.

4. Have the facts and figures at your fingertips

Be ready to supply the latest data requested by the area review team to help ensure their judgements are based on accurate information. Colleges have described a ‘tsunami’ of data requests so it is important to have reliable and up-to-date information to hand, such as details of student recruitment or retention figures and success rates – both historical and current. You may also be asked to provide details about your colleges estates and assets.

By taking more control and seizing the opportunities presented by the area reviews, your college will emerge better equipped to deliver for students while meeting the skills needs of local businesses.

Karen Reece is head of the division of Capita responsible for further and higher education.

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