In July 2015, the then Skills Minister, Nick Boles, announced plans for “a restructuring of the post‑16 education and training sector, through a series of area based reviews of provision.” The 37 post-16 area reviews were carried out over a two year period beginning in September 2015.
The reviews were intended to enable a transition towards fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers, which are more specialised and collaborate more effectively. They focused on further education (FE) colleges and sixth form colleges, but the Government stated that the quality and availability of all post-16 education and training provision in an area would be taken into account. Concerns were raised about whether the reviews could provide a sufficiently comprehensive look at provision in an area without focusing on all post-16 providers, including school sixth forms.
Each review was led and overseen by a ‘local steering group’ consisting of chairs of governors, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), local authorities, FE and Sixth-Form College Commissioners and Regional School Commissioners. Reviews started by assessing the educational and economic needs of the area before evaluating institutional options to meet that need. The options could include, among other things, greater specialisation, mergers or closures of institutions. Institutions were responsible for deciding whether to accept any recommendations arising from a review, but the Government expected them to take action in light of a review’s findings.
While colleges, local authorities and LEPs were responsible in the first instance for funding any changes resulting from the reviews, the Government made some funding available in the form of transition grants and via a restructuring facility. The administrative process of the reviews themselves was funded by the Government.
Following some delays, the last of the area review reports were published in August 2017. The reports for each of the 37 reviews are available at: Further education area reviews: policy and reports. It has been suggested that the number of college mergers arising from the reviews is fewer than the 50-80 expected. In January 2017, the then Minister was reported as saying that over half of the 93 sixth form colleges had expressed an interest in converting to academy status; 20 had done so by April 2018.
The Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges has stated that the experience of colleges participating in the reviews was varied. In most cases, he said they served as a “useful prompt” for colleges to think about their strategy and relationship to other colleges, and in some places they were a “stimulus for working collaboratively after many years of being urged to compete”. There was also “no doubt”, he said, that the reviews triggered some mergers “which will lead to the rationalisation needed for longer term financial stability.”