We spoke and the government listened

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06 February 2017 by Janet Clark
By the end of March this year, every FE and Sixth Form College in England will have gone through the Area Review process, the aim of which has been to completely restructure skills education provision.

Although some have questioned the financial cost of the Area Reviews and whether this represents money well spent, there has been little acknowledgment of the process’s negative impact on college staff. However, ATL is well aware from the response to our survey of members for the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into Area Reviews, that the process has increased workload, caused considerable stress and severely dented morale. In a letter to the then Skills Minister, Nick Boles MP, following the announcement of the Area Reviews back in the summer of 2015, Mary Bousted warned that this was a likely outcome.

But could the situation have been worse for ATL members in the FE sector had Mary not written to Nick Boles? Following her letter, ATL was invited to a meeting with the senior civil servants overseeing the Area Review process at the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS). At our first meeting, we stressed the need for engagement with college staff as the Area Reviews took place. This would ensure that the process would benefit from the deep knowledge and wealth of experience of college teachers, lecturers and support staff. In addition, involving staff in the Area Reviews would create a better understanding of the policy and therefore lessen the impact on workforce morale.

BIS were keen to listen to our concerns and a process of engagement was established. This included meetings between education unions, the FE Commissioner and civil servants at each stage of each Area Review. It is important to note that ATL officials, reps, and members have been critical of the content of many of these meetings, reporting little meaningful engagement. However, ATL’s regular meetings with BIS at a national level since September 2015, and its securing of union places on the Area Review National Advisory Board, have enabled us to feed these concerns back to government.

In the discussions that ensued, it became clear that BIS was limited in what it could do to engage staff as, due to the autonomous status of colleges post-1992 incorporation, responsibility lies with governors and principals. However, BIS have advised us that the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form College Association are keen to act where colleges are reluctant to engage with staff. It is important therefore, that members keep us informed where communication is not taking place during the final waves of the Area Reviews.

There is no excuse for poor communication with staff by college managers. At ATL’s insistence, BIS instructed the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) to produce guidance for colleges on ‘Staff Voice and Staff Engagement in Area Reviews’. This document, which ATL also contributed to, has been distributed to all college chairs of governors and principals through their membership of the Area Review steering groups.

A further barrier to proper engagement with college staff has been the lack of transparency surrounding the process. Without access to Area Review steering group meeting minutes and the data used for decision-making, it has been impossible for ATL representatives to ask meaningful questions at the local level joint union meetings with BIS and the FE Commissioner. Although colleges are understandably concerned about sensitive information, ATL made the case to the government that this issue could be overcome through redacting documents.

BIS were slow to respond to our request for transparency within the Area Review decision-making process. However, following many Freedom of Information requests made by ATL to obtain steering group meeting minutes and associated papers, it was understood that there was little point in concealing this information any longer. For the final waves of Area Reviews, BIS have promised that this information will be made available to inform unions’ discussions with the FE Commissioner and BIS.

Of course, while promises are made at the top level, these do not necessarily follow through to the local Area Review meetings. We rely on ATL reps to let us know what is not working so that we can support them to take action and feedback to the Department for Education (responsibility for post-16 education has now transferred to this department from BIS). It is also true that much of the process has been less than satisfactory, with many government concessions being too little and made too late. Certainly, the break-neck speed at which the Area Reviews have taken, has left little room for changing procedures.

However, we have made some significant progress and the Area Reviews have also been a learning experience for both the government and for ATL. And they are not yet over. A long phase of implementing steering group recommendations, which will include college mergers and restructures, is now just starting and will impact many members working in FE. The DfE has promised that ETF’s ‘Staff Voice and Staff Guidance’ paper will be updated to make it more relevant for the implementation phased of the Area Reviews. Engaging college staff will be more important than ever through this process. With ETF’s guidance, and ATL’s relationship with civil servants now well-established, we are well placed to ensure that action can be taken if this isn’t happening.

For more information, contact Janet Clark, education policy adviser (FE and Skills).

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Area reviews