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No one size fits all in area reviews

16 September 2015

Since the Government’s area review guidance came out last week it’s fair to say it has generated as many questions as it answered, particularly if the 90 plus questions asked on Monday night's webinar are anything to go by. Principals and governors are clearly concerned about the scope of area reviews, their pace, how they will be funded, who will manage the process as well as the time and resource they will need at a college level. There is also some concern about how areas will be determined and any overlaps dealt with as well as the role of Institutes of Technology, where guidance has yet to be published. No doubt more guidance will be forthcoming as the first wave of area reviews in Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Tees Valley moves forward. But I believe it’s fair to say that whilst there is still a lack of clarity about the scope and pace of the reviews, this is something that colleges should be using to their advantage, to use their own knowledge to help shape the review process. What is very clear is that principals and governors, and in particular chairs of governors, will be central to the area review process and, perhaps more importantly, how the recommendations are implemented. Here at the Association of Colleges, we have worked hard over the summer to influence the reviews and the guidance provided. Specifically, college autonomy in making decisions on the recommendations of the reviews was further reinforced and the involvement of principals in the process was secured. The guidance now makes clear principals and governing bodies are expected to be fully engaged in the process and will make the final decision on whether to accept and how to implement the conclusions. Further to this, the condition that all post-16 provision should be taken into account in the reviews is a direct reflection of our work, likewise the references to small school sixth forms. The consequence is that reviews are most likely to comment on school sixth form provision in a way that is hard to ignore. There will be no one-size-fits-all approach which means how colleges and other stakeholders approach the process will have a significant impact on its outcomes locally. Rather than try to second guess the process, colleges should consider what they can do now - and I’d suggest the questions principals and governing bodies should be asking themselves now are: Do we have the right skills and capacity to effectively engage in the process? What resources are available from within the college to prepare our submission to a review? When is a review likely in our area and how soon do we want one? Governing bodies who have already adopted the Code of Good Governance for English Colleges and particularly those who are undertaking a ‘Board Effectiveness Review’ should be able to answer these questions with some clarity. Ultimately, area reviews are undoubtedly a challenge, but could also be an opportunity. David Walker is the Director of Governance at the Association of Colleges.