The Area Review into the state of Black Country general further education and sixth-form colleges has concluded institutions are working well to meet the skills shortages of their areas and the sector is characterized by a spirit of collaboration, underpinned by financial stability and robust strategic planning.

Four local authority areas of: Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, Walsall Council and Wolverhampton City Council, with a total population of approximately 1.16 million people, formed the focus of the review with six local providers: City of Wolverhampton College, Dudley College of Technology, Halesowen College, King Edward VI College Stourbridge, Sandwell College and Walsall College, placed under scrutiny as part of the evaluation conducted by Sir David Collins and his team, between April-July 2016.

Acknowledging that residents of the Black Country are less well qualified than compared to the national average and that all local authority areas have higher levels of benefit claimants, fewer jobs and lower pay that the rest of the country, the review none the less recognizes in-roads have been made to up-skill local residents and propel growth across the Black Country economy.

But it goes on to set ambitious targets for the future urging that more should be done to decrease the number of people with no qualifications by over 57,000 individuals by 2033.

The report also sets the target in-line with Local Enterprise Partnerships that an additional 90,000 residents need to be trained to degree level or equivalent and a further 10,000 apprentices will need to be in work with training, if the Black Country economy is thrive in future years.

Recommendations from the review included proposals for further collaboration between institutions to map and expand the Black Country wide apprenticeship programmes, with an even greater emphasis being placed on higher level apprenticeships, than is reflected by the current offer. It also proposes greater collaboration is needed between training organisations and local authorities to meet the demands of an increasing number of high needs learners and that a plan be drawn up by the new West Midlands Combined Authority to address adult skills needs. Overall no major areas of weakness were found and the review stopped short of suggesting improvements could only be met by major institutional change - including mergers.

Five of the College's in the review are to remain as standalone General Further Education (GFE) colleges, or in the case of King Edward VI a standalone sixth form college, with the exception of Walsall College which will explore the potential for partnership with both Walsall Adult Community College and South Staffordshire College.

Commenting on the findings of the Review, Graham Pennington Chair of the Black Country College partnership and Principal of Sandwell College said:

"The outcomes of the Review are no surprise, Black Country Colleges are relentless in their pursuit of delivering high quality technical education that meets the skills needs of the region. The work we are doing in developing higher level apprenticeships and working with employers to upskill their workforce is indicative of our shared drive to address long-term skills needs.

There is a very strong further education infrastructure across the Black Country that gives us a solid base from which to grow our collaborative partnerships. We are not complacent about the future as we face considerable challenges in making sure even more individuals in the Black Country develop skills that will not only enhance their own lives but contribute to regional economic growth.

In a number of ways further collaboration makes sense to simplify the skills system and diversify the course offer, so that each institution plays to its strength. I take Sir David Collin's report as an endorsement that Black Country Colleges are doing the right things, at the right colleges in the right way and this places us in a strong position for thefuture.”

The long term financial resilience of the colleges is to be further secured by the exploration of shared services for back office functions and efficiency savings by joint staff training initiatives alongside potential joint procurement exercises to achieve economies of scale when purchasing common goods and services such as cleaning and signage.

Pictured: Principals and Governors from Black Country colleges