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Understanding England’s FE & Skills Sector

The Office for Students (OfS), as regulator for the HE sector, has developed a framework for “provider segmentation” of HEIs in England which identifies six different categories of HEI, based on a combination of size and type. This brief report aims to provide a similar high-level snapshot of the FE & Skills sector, with a particular focus on the position of the 156 General FE Colleges operating across England.


Three general features of the sector provide important context:


  1. The 45 FE Colleges in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland share many of the characteristics of their English counterparts, but since devolution there’s been an increasing divergence in their regulation, funding and curriculum offer.

  2. The number of colleges in England has shrunk significantly over the past 15 years, mainly as a result of the Area Review process undertaken by government between 2015-19 to restructure the FE sector in response to its deteriorating financial health. The Association of Colleges has recorded 113 mergers since 2008, and the process is still continuing, although with less frequency.

  3. There are around 1,700 Independent Training Providers operating in the Skills sector, particularly prominent in delivering apprenticeship training. They are a significant presence, enrolling c600,000 learners annually, compared to the 1.6 million in FE colleges. Whilst offering the same qualifications as FECs, they are distinctively different in two important respects: first, in being predominantly private sector for-profit businesses rather than public sector institutions; second, in typically focusing on industry sectors rather than being place-based.


English FE College Segmentation


There are currently 221 incorporated English FECs of three main types: General FE Colleges (GFECs), Sixth Form Colleges (SFCs), and Specialist Colleges.


Sixth Form Colleges


There are 44 SFCs, most of which are overwhelmingly focused on 16-19 education. There has been a significant reduction since 2017, when the government opened up the option for SFCs to convert to school Academy status. A total of 29 colleges have converted so far. SFCs are amongst the most successful sixth form providers in the country, offering a much broader range of A-Level and other courses than most school sixth forms and achieving excellent results.


Specialist Colleges


There are now 21 Specialist Colleges in England: 11 Land Based Colleges, 8 Adult Education providers and 2 Arts Colleges. Their number has declined significantly over the past decade, as many have been absorbed by merger into either the HE sector, or in most cases the FE sector.


Land Based Colleges remain a distinctive feature of the FE system, with large institutions, like Hartpury and Reaseheath, retaining a high profile within a sub sector which is increasingly delivering an integrated further and higher education offer. Almost all are registered with the OfS as higher education providers and Hartpury, in addition to remaining an FE corporation, gained full university status in 2017.


Adult Education and Arts colleges are generally small in size and include some of the smallest colleges in the country, for example, Fircroft College of Adult Education, with an annual income of £2.5m. As a result of their individual historical and geographical contexts, they operate successfully in very particular niche markets. Despite their relatively small size, several have a high profile and reputation regionally and nationally, for example City Lit in London, and the Workers Education Association, which delivers courses across England.


Both specialist Arts colleges are rated “Outstanding” by Ofsted and both are registered to deliver higher education. The Northern School of Art is one of a very select group of institutions to be both Ofsted Outstanding and to achieve the top “Gold” rating under the higher education Teaching Excellence Framework.


General Further Education Colleges


In deciding how to segment the GFEC sector the key challenge is to find a meaningful way to group institutions which are hugely varied in size and curriculum focus. In terms of annual income, GFECs vary from under £5m to over £154m. Most are single campus colleges, but a growing number operate from multiple sites and serve multiple local authority areas.


GFECs deliver a mixture of provision funded through distinctly different regimes with different regulatory requirements, including 16-19 education, adult education, apprenticeships and special needs, with each college offering a different proportion of each. 130 colleges are on the OfS register of higher education providers and half a dozen have degree awarding powers. A small number operate in very specialist niche areas, including prison education, courses for international students, on-line courses, provision for 14–16-year-olds, and fully commercial training courses.


There is growing collaboration between FECs and HEIs. Four have merged already, with the universities of Bolton, Derby, London South Bank and West London having absorbed FE colleges. The 19 Institutes of Technology (soon to be 21) created over the past five years are based on FE/HE partnerships. There are 64 colleges of all sizes involved in IoTs, 19 as lead institutions.


Given this diversity, the simplest approach is to segment by size, based on annual income. Using the latest available financial information (mostly from 2022/23 annual accounts) GFECs have been grouped into four bands, as follows:


  • Small – up to £25m (38 providers)

  • Medium - £25-£50m (88 providers)

  • Large - £50m-£75m (22 providers)

  • Extra Large - £75m+ (8 providers)


This segmentation takes account of the fact that although only a minority of colleges operate with annual budgets over £50m, their size makes large colleges of particular strategic importance. While most colleges are anchor institutions in local authority areas, larger colleges typically play an important role in regional and in some cases national skills delivery ecosystems. The whole FE system plays a remarkably flexible role in England’s skills training system, adapting successfully to a wide range of contexts in urban, rural, and coastal areas and meeting a huge variety of local needs.


Small GFECs


The 38 institutions in this category are generally colleges serving local authority areas with smaller populations, or areas in which there are well-established sixth forms in schools and/or neighbouring sixth form colleges which enrol a sizeable proportion of school leavers. In some cases there are also strong local adult education services, or Independent Training Providers which attract adult students who in other localities would go to their local GFEC.


There is no evidence that the size of a college affects the quality of what it delivers, if it’s well-managed, and many smaller colleges offer top-quality education and training to their local communities. Some are key players in specific industry sectors: examples include the Leeds College of Building, and ADA, a specialist in the IT & Digital sector. With the Sellafield nuclear power station nearby, Lakes College in Cumbria not only provides vital access to education and skills for the communities of the Lake District but is home to a national Nuclear Skills Centre. Farnborough College of Technology, serving an area that has for over a century been a centre for the UK’s aviation industry, specialises in aerospace engineering qualifications. Others, such as Boston College in Lincolnshire and Telford College in Shropshire, serve predominantly rural areas and provide much-needed local educational opportunities. Place-based institutions, small colleges are both sustained and constrained by the nature of the local economy and geography they operate within.


Medium GFECs.


The majority of GFECs fall within this category, and arguably form the backbone of the English FE & Skills system. They are a prominent feature in small cities and large towns across the country - from Bradford to York, Gateshead to Exeter, Leicester to Walsall -  delivering education services to local communities and providing training to meet the skills needs of local employers. While most are located in towns and cities, many are multi-campus colleges operating across wider geographies:  for example, Education Partnership Northeast straddles Sunderland, Hartlepool and Northumberland; and Cheshire College South and West, covers East and West Cheshire and Chester.


Most medium GFECs deliver a broad portfolio of 16-19 and adult courses with a strong focus on their immediate locality, but there are exceptions. The Warwickshire College Group, unusually for a college of its size, has degree awarding powers and a wide range of higher education provision. City of Bristol College delivers apprenticeship training for DAF trucks maintenance engineers across the UK. West Suffolk College has invested in the XR Lab, a cutting-edge training facility for using virtual reality design techniques which they are marketing to private companies across the region and beyond.


There are many other examples of medium sized colleges providing education and training that goes well beyond the immediate needs of their catchment area. But they are predominantly place-based institutions, strongly rooted in local communities and economies.


Large GFECs


Although still firmly rooted in their local areas, the 22 large GFECs offer skills training that has regional, and in some cases, national impact. Typically, they are the product of a series of mergers between smaller institutions, and the majority are multi-campus operations. Four are based in London, while others serve major regional cities such as Bradford, Norwich, Exeter, Nottingham and Sheffield. There are also several serving mixed urban and rural areas, such as the Cornwall College Group and the East Sussex College Group.


Recently merged college groups in this category are beginning to emerge as regional hubs for education and skills, and the more established ones are already doing so. Blackpool and the Fylde College has full degree awarding powers and is one of the largest providers of higher education amongst the FE sector. Weston College on the Somerset coast, along with its partners in the West of England Institute of Technology, is a leading regional provider of aerospace engineering and other advanced technical training. Bridgwater and Taunton College was recently highlighted in the Harrington Review of Foreign Direct Investment for its long-term partnership with EDF Ltd to deliver the workforce skills needed for the new nuclear power station under construction at Hinkley Point C.


The colleges in this segment, although comprising only 10% of GFECs, have the size and ambition to make a significant contribution to regional and national skills training in priority sectors. They have the financial strength to invest in high quality facilities and staffing, and therefore to be involved in large-scale, longer term strategic developments in professional and technical training.

 

Extra Large GFECs


A new breed of GFEC formed from a series of mergers over the past decade, this group of eight “super-sized” colleges are each as large as many universities and are beginning to not only deliver education and training, but to influence strategy and development across England’s tertiary education landscape. Five of them retain a primarily place-based focus: Capital City College Group and New City College Group in London, LTE in Manchester, Luminate Education Group in Leeds and the Bedford College Group. While at present they are still at various stages of refining and consolidating their offer, all have the potential to go further in developing a wider agenda.


Three are already having an impact beyond their catchment areas. The Chichester College Group, stretching across West Sussex and Brighton & Hove, has prioritised excellence in teaching, achieving an “Outstanding” rating from Ofsted and a Silver rating in the HE Teaching Excellence Framework, and is unusual within the FE sector in having a long history of international education, currently attracting c2000 international students each year. Activate Learning, with campuses in Oxfordshire, Bracknell Forest and Surrey, has developed a sophisticated learning philosophy based on insights from neuroscience, and has successfully pioneered on-line teaching for adults in the community.


The Newcastle College Group, now known as NCG, is unlike any other college by virtue of its national geographical footprint, managing colleges in Newcastle, Cumbria, West Lancashire, the West Midlands and London. The college is strong in apprenticeships, FE and HE, with full degree awarding powers, and is already beginning to be future-focused and innovative, having developed its own in-house AI Administrator project designed to reduce teacher workload, hosting an annual Ed Tech Summit, and running its own Skills competition, modelled on the World Skills initiative. Its website is unique in having a section devoted to “Thought Leadership” – a clear signal of its intent to be a national influencer in education and skills.


The Extra Large GFEC group is continuing to evolve. The Bedford College Group only completed its most recent merger last year, and more established institutions, such as LTE, have been preoccupied strategically by a multi-million capital investment programme which has completely transformed its estate in Manchester. But this segment, above all, has the potential to radically change the profile of the FE sector through consolidating a new generation of large, influential, innovative colleges which combine a place-based strategy with significant contributions to national and international education and skills training.


Conclusion


Any summary of the FE sector in England is inevitably a snapshot in time because of the constant mergers and realignments taking place across the country. It could well be that the number of individual institutions continues to reduce, as smaller colleges see the benefits of merger, and as devolution continues to roll out across England, creating new geo-political boundaries. New policies from both national political parties might also hasten further change; the Advanced British Standard qualification proposed by the Conservatives to replace A Levels, or the creation of Technical Excellence Colleges proposed by Labour, may have a big impact if implemented. The only certain thing is that change will continue.


Against that background, this attempt at segmentation based on the position in April 2024 should be seen primarily as a working guide to navigate the diversity and complexity of the English FE system.

 


ENGLAND’S FE SECTOR AT A GLANCE

Sixth Form Colleges

 

  • 29 converted to academy school status

  • Leaving 44 in FE sector

Specialist Colleges

 

  • 11 Land Based

  • 8 Adult Education

  • 2 Arts Colleges

General FE Colleges

 

156 in total (April 2024)


  • 8 Extra Large Colleges (over £75m)*

  • 22 Large Colleges (£50-75m)

  • 88 Medium Colleges (£25-50m)

  • 38 Small Colleges (up to £25m)

*Based on annual income

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