[Also on LinkedIn. Header image added 3/10/2015. Small edits made 4/10/2015. Addendum from evidence by Martin Donnelly and Peter Lauener to the 19/10/2015 Public Accounts Committee added 20/10/2015]
Until 2002 I was employed in The Sheffield College. For the last seven years I have been a governor there. The college is a big urban FE college spread across four main sites, with a turnover of over £50m.
In 2000 I was a bit involved in The Sheffield Review, after The Sheffield College was put into Special Measures by the FEFC and the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett. Two Governors were "imposed" (Bob Fryer and FEFC's Dr Terry Melia) and George (now Sir George) Sweeney was parachuted in as Principal.
Here is a link to the executive summary of The Sheffield Review: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/9912/. (I have a hard copy of the full review, but there seem not to be any publicly available digital versions.)
One very striking aspect of the Sheffield Review's method, which seems to differ from what is currently envisaged for ABRs, was that the FEFC's Terry Melia was very hot indeed on working out what the need in Sheffield was, and only then moving on to what provision was required to meet the need.
Of course the funding situation then was not as it is now, and is expected to be even worse after November's Comprehensive Spending Review. So funding will be insufficient to meet needs. And working out need in a LEP area such as Greater Manchester, or Sheffield City Region is a bigger job than "only" in one big local authority area. Nevertheless, ABRs ought, for moral as well as practical reasons, have that baseline assessment of numbers/need at an early stage.
From what I can make out, having attended the introductory meeting for college governors about Area Based Reviews, and having kept my eyes and ears open, it seems that ABRs will look at what there is on the ground by way of supply, and then move on to considering how that supply might be better and/or more cheaply provided. [Note that this approach is not the one that Government Officials described to the Public Accounts Committee on 19/10/2015. See Addendum below.]
The gap between supply and need would thus never be analysed.
This flaw in the ABR process (it is not the only one...) should be fixed.
Addendum - 20/10/2015
Extract from the oral evidence taken on 19/10/2015 by the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into the financial sustainability in the further education sector. Emphasis added. For the full transcript go to http://goo.gl/w2It35.
Q50 - Chair [Meg Hillier, MP]: It sounds like it could be a bit haphazard. In terms of the future shape of the sector, FE colleges particularly have a capital asset and a physical presence, which constrains who they deliver to, to a degree, but also is an important local provision for people who may not be able to travel in the same way that people might do to university. Does the Department have no strategic oversight of what the general geographical spread should be of these institutions, and do you not have any alarms or worries about how area-based reviews may work or throw up mergers that might not deliver for all residents in a particular area?
Martin Donnelly [Permanent Secretary at BIS]: We are very concerned to ensure that there are available learning opportunities for people throughout England—in this case. Perhaps I could ask Peter to comment in a bit more detail about how we take that into account as we go through the process of supporting colleges and the area review.
Peter Lauener [Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency and the Education Funding Agency]: First of all, a bit of context. As Martin said, there has been a long-term process of rationalisation and merger in the further education sector since incorporation in 1993. When a merger happens it does not mean that buildings are necessarily closed, although there is sometimes a separate process of reducing the number of buildings in a particular area, if there are too many; but very often you get distributed leadership and management over a wider area, which produces savings and efficiency, and improvements in effectiveness.
As we go to the area reviews, the big challenge with those is precisely, I think, what you said—to start with what is needed for learners, for communities, for business, and then work back from that to structure. So it is not a sort of “move the deckchairs around”. It is what is needed in this area to provide the best possible service to the three groups—learners, the community and employers—and improve progression through to higher skill levels. It is a quite a challenging agenda.