College mergers: A question of quality

Louise Doyle, talks about securing quality in the FE college merger process.

I doubt that there is a college principal in England who would disagree with deputy director of FE and Skills at Ofsted Paul Joyce’s concerns that the area review process is ‘taking the focus off the day job’, putting quality of provision at risk. 
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While any review is likely to see rationalised curriculums delivered by fewer colleges, creating more homogenous and financially resilient organisations where back office functions and learning delivery systems are increasingly shared; the role of local FE colleges equipping people with the skills to meet the needs of employers is under threat.
However, while financial issues, and the drive to deliver cost savings, are usually front-of-mind for senior management and leadership teams during any merger or transformation process, the matter of quality assurance and how to secure it, must take equal priority. 
It should of course be critical at all stages, not only because it appears Ofsted are starting to pose questions about measuring quality assurance for post merger colleges but also and more importantly because in the long run, the success of collaborative FE drivers will stand or fall on quality learning provision.
Indeed, the notion of quality to the fore throughout changing organisational structures is a view echoed by Stuart Rimmer, principal of Great Yarmouth FE College and a former director of quality at a leading North West college. He supports the assessment that those “colleges who merge or are considering such a move, will only see their reputations and positive public image sustained or enhanced on the back of high quality standards. In the final analysis, this is what really counts to parents, students and employers”.
So, how does leadership prepare for delivering a consistently good approach to quality assurance during and after a merger and simultaneously ensure that quality does not become a sideshow to the main event?
There is no single ‘right’ future model for colleges to follow but the success of any one approach will be in the ‘hard yards’ of preparation, planning and final implementation. 
New collaborations and structures tend to be more successful where the decision to change has been taken on logical and evidence-based grounds, subject to rigorous assessment and careful implementation. These can create valuable economies of scale, protect and improve student access and progression, and address issues of improving quality standards. 
There is a growing advocacy for ensuring robust self-assessment and quality improvement plans are in place in the new organisations, undertaken for the benefit of learners and not simply to satisfy external inspection requirements.
There’s also scope for online QA toolkits, which remove the paperwork, allow ease of information pertaining to quality of provision to be shared and provide a peer review and support platform, stripping back a process that on occasions can seem too over-blown, bureaucratic and centred on a reporting output rather than a process of improvement. 
Quality assurance cannot be an afterthought; it has to be embedded from the outset of any merger and at the forefront of the conversations and negotiations that surround the process. After all quality impinges on everything and cascades down to impact on every aspect and function of a college. Simply put, the long-term success of any post merger college will be built on foundations that include a high dosage of quality.
About the author 
Louise Doyle is a director at online quality assurance tool kit specialist MESMA, which was set-up in response to changes implemented by education watchdog Ofsted


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