Acts of combination
There are clearly educational benefits. But other more powerful motives are at work. A merger may make the difference between survival or decline for some of the seven sixth-form colleges in Cleveland.
Michael Clark, principal at Cleveland College, Redcar, is in no doubt. "It is my view that there is a serious over-provision of sixth-form places. Since incorporation, mergers can't be forced on colleges, so there has to be a measure of co-operation."
In the short-term he believes that Sir William Turner, which had 220 full-time students, would have survived because it enjoyed a fairly high average level of funding. But there would have been problems in the longer term.
"I think that is true of many smaller sixth-form colleges," said Mr Clark. "A merger does provide an economy of scale. There will be a reduction in the size of the management structure. Flexibility has been increased because we are a bigger college."
His view on the future of sixth-form colleges in the county is echoed by Brian Worthy, Cleveland's county education officer, who said that had incorporation not happened, the county council would have had to consider rationalising its sixth-form provision.
"Officers had begun to draw up plans, but they were shelved in the light of incorporation. There was a recognition in the late Eighties that, partly due to demographic factors, there was over-provision," he said.
Inspired by the success of the Cleveland College merger, two others are now proceeding. Longlands College of FE in Middlesbrough will merge with Marton Sixth Form College and Kirby College of FE with Acklam Sixth Form College. Mr Worthy believes a further merger may be on the cards.
The various colleges that are planning mergers consulted the local authority, which welcomed the development.
"In political terms Labour has long been sympathetic to the tertiary college concept," said Mr Worthy, "coupled with a realisation that some rationalisation was necessary. " For the remaining sixth-form colleges, the future looks difficult. Mr Worthy said that though they seemed buoyant about their prospects, some have failed to meet enrolment targets, which must cause financial problems.
The Further Education Funding Council has approved the Cleveland mergers, but refuses to be drawn on whether they represent the way forward nationally.
When the FEFC looked at which colleges were facing financial problems, it was impossible to discern a common factor. Certainly, size itself was no indication of whether a college would survive.
At Cleveland College, Mr Clark believes that the mergers are fulfilling a policy decision made when Cleveland came into being in 1974 that the sixth-form colleges were merely an interim stage before the long-term goal of a tertiary college system was reached. Individual principals are now succeeding where for 20 years the political will has failed.
"It was only a week into incorporation when I was first contacted about a possible merger," he said.
The only significant difficulties came about because the legislation hadn't foreseen that mergers would take place and there was no provision. Every question to the Department for Education set a precedent. The experience at Cleveland was to provide a national model for how to tackle mergers.
It was agreed that both colleges would close and a new one would be created so there was no impression of a takeover. It has proved to be the most copied system throughout the country. Mr Clark has been contacted by colleges nationally asking for advice.
Staff were assured that there was no intention of cutting jobs. The only major fear was that there would be a hiccup in the legal procedure and the new college would not be created in time.
Mr Clark said: "Our fear was that if something went wrong with the merging process we would have had to disentangle what we had already merged. We decided that would be the most unhelpful thing. Instead we were obliged to produce two separate prospectuses and operate as two colleges.
"We have merged the administration, but in fact this will be the first year when the curriculum is merged."
When the new college was created there was some overlapping of provision. A small number of GNVQs had been offered at Sir William Turner, but these are now based at the Cleveland College site. For A-levels the provision was found to be quite different, with the sixth-form college catering for 16 to 18-year-old full-time students while the FE college was predominantly mature, part-time students. They have been kept separate so far.
Mr Clark said: "The savings have not been megabucks and you don't merge a college just to save money. What it has done is give better provision for young people."