When a merger is more than the sum of its parts

When a merger is more than the sum of its parts
Date2nd Jan 2023AuthorStuart Dawkins and Joyce BlackCategoriesPolicy and News

Stuart and Joyce, governors at WQE and Regent College Group, won the 2022 Governance Award from SFCA for their work. This blog takes the form of a reflection from Stuart, former chair of the board, followed by reflections from his colleague Joyce, the vice-chair.

Stuart Dawkins, writing for the WQE website in July (pictured below)

At the end of June, I chaired a WQE Corporation meeting for the last time. I had agreed to write a piece for the college website about my five-and-a-bit years as Chair. Instead, and with great pride, my piece can now be about an award which reflects the hard work of so many people across the college! Just before the meeting, and unbeknownst to me, the Sixth Form College Association 2022 Award for Governance had been awarded to me and to our Vice Chair, Joyce Black – recognising our service and achievement in support of the educational needs of Leicester, particularly around how we managed the merger of our two colleges. We were both surprised and delighted to be recognised in this way.Chamber pic 3

By March 2017, it had been agreed in principle that WQE and Regent Colleges would merge. Immediately before that process began, the then-Chair had a change of job and resigned from the college. I remember well the resulting call from Sandra – then Principal of WQE – informing me of this and asking whether I would be prepared to take the role of Chair and, inter alia, steering us through the merger process. I said that I would be honoured to do so. It has been quite a five years; merging two colleges takes a lot of time and effort, and this includes far more than usual time and effort at board level. Successfully steering us through that whilst also getting myself more immersed in the specific requirements of education and a thriving sixth form college was a challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed.

A vital aspect of any merger is the harmonisation of two organisations into one. This always takes time, typically measured in years rather than months.  What was particularly rewarding to me was that the harmonisation process for the new joint Board of Governors took place really quickly. I can thank Joyce, as Deputy Chair and ex-Chair of Regent College, and all of the members of the corporation for that.

Then came Covid… I do not remember a time when the rules of the game changed so often, so belatedly and, at times, so seemingly randomly, as they did for education during the pandemic period. The college dealt with those challenges brilliantly and the corporation continued to do its role effectively. Our collective efforts and achievements during that period will remain another source of great pride. 

The timing of our recent Ofsted was, through serendipity, perfect for me. Ofsted should visit a newly merged college within three years, but the pandemic meant their schedules slipped. We were fairly confident that the College’s ‘Good’ rating would be retained, but as we all know, an Ofsted inspection is an Ofsted inspection… We were, again, delighted with the resulting report; even more so as it reflected the immense work done by the college as part of harmonisation and managing through the pandemic. We were told that mergers most often result in colleges going backwards in their next inspection. The tone and content of our Ofsted report showed the opposite: clear progress. This is a great position for me to hand over to my successor, Philip Parkinson. Philip has been an incredibly dedicated and supportive governor and will, I am sure, chair well and help drive the college forward towards ‘Outstanding’.

SImageo, what are my lasting thoughts from those five-and-a-bit years? All of the formal achievements listed above, of course, but other things too.  For example, the considerable investment in our estates leading us ever closer to our vision of having a ‘campus’ for each subject area. An ever-increasing focus on student welfare and support is high on the list, too.  One anecdote springs to mind: one of the early phases of our estates plan included providing student welfare accommodation on the Regents Road site akin to that already in place at University Road. I had undertaken a governor visit to Student Welfare in University Road about a week before the pandemic lockdown began. A couple of years later, I was making a governor visit to our Media & Creative Arts department when I wandered over to a table of students in the café area (pictured right) to chat. One of those students praised the support she had received from the college for her mental health needs, saying how great it was that she could access resources at University Road – where she was primarily based – but also go away from that area for counselling sessions at Regent Road. I thought “Yes! We did that and I actually signed the deeds to make it happen”.  It was, I admit, a lovely personal moment.

And my memory will be of the remarkable team we have at the college. The corporation, the executive leadership team, the curriculum management, the teaching staff, the support staff, the various partner organisations who help us deliver for our students. All of them working hard to provide the best possible environment for the 3,500+ students who are in our care each year. The relationship between Chair and Principal is vital, and Paul has been an exemplary Principal in that relationship, as well as providing a regular, well-informed level of chat about our beloved Leicester City Football Club.

My father was a scholarship student at the old Wyggeston Boys School in the 1940s. Both my daughters attended WQE. I walk past the college most days of my life. When I put on the old Wyggy Boys cufflinks I recently inherited from my late father for my final meeting as Chair, I hoped that in my five-and-a-bit years I had played some constructive part in providing a great experience for those students.

Joyce Black, writing in December to add her own thoughts (pictured below accepting the award)

IMG 8502When Stuart wrote his retrospective over the summer of his reflections of being WQE Chair over the last four and a bit years, it’s always human nature that we pause and think back over our own experiences of that time. It’s fair to say that I’m no different… 

When I think back what immediately struck me was the role played by other people and the external events that helped shape our journey. Stuart has already mentioned that back in March 2017 it had already been agreed in principle that WQE and Regent Colleges would merge, and I well remember meeting with Stuart as Chair of Regent and forging those first very initial steps to merger. Around that time we were also informed that the Department for Education, with support from the FE Commissioner and Skills Funding Agency, was beginning the process of Area Based Reviews. These have now disappeared into the mists of time, but for WQE and Regent the timing, although frustrating, did prove useful. While we were already making progress on our thinking of the kind of college we wanted for our students in Leicester, what the ABR provided for us was the opportunity to more formally rehearse those scenarios with other local education stakeholders and give us the space to explore various options open to us. 

As a former Chair, I agree wholeheartedly with Stuart that merging two colleges takes a lot of time and effort at Board Level. I also believe that the reason we were able to do this so successfully was the decision we took right at the start, to engage independent education management consultants to oversee the whole process and to work with us to ensure we achieved the outcomes we were all working towards. Working with colleagues at Rockborn gave both Principals and both Chairs the safe spaces to have those challenging merger conversations, explore our ‘red lines’, and ultimately agree what was really important. I learned a great deal about myself and fellow board members during our many Merger Steering Group meetings. 

Stuart talked about the harmonisation of the two colleges into one and the time that takes. I think it is also fair to mention that one of the key people who helped the Board during that time was our Clerk to the Corporation Peter Butcher. While we were discussing the big strategic picture, Peter was very diligently working behind the scenes to support the new board to ensure that we fully understood the governance implications of our decisions and to make sure we were fully in step with our own Instruments and Articles – no mean feat when we had brought together two strong, but different  boards to form a new group. That new group has grown and flourished together since and has definitely shown that the sum of the parts is greater together. I’d like to think that I have played my part in that, with both my key interest and role in leading the Search & Governance Committee to ensure we continue to recruit a dynamic and engaged group of governors to fulfil our plans for the future of the college and the students of Leicester. I can honestly say that I am enjoying being a part of the evolution of the Board since merger, bringing on new governors to take forward the legacy. 

But here we are nearly six years on, a sixth form college in the centre of Leicester that stayed open all throughout Covid; a college with a recent “Good” Ofsted report, with a sub-text that belies the experience of other merged colleges who often go backwards; and a college with “outstanding” financial health that continues to fulfil its plans for the students of the city of Leicester and its surrounding areas. 

As the former Chair of Regent and the current Vice-Chair of WQE and Chair of the Search & Governance Committee, I am immensely proud of what we have achieved in what seems to me a really short space of time. I was absolutely delighted to receive, together with Stuart, the SFCA 2022 Award for Governance.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with committed board members and a principal and Senior Leadership Team that have the learner experience at the heart of all the college stands for. If I were to change anything in hindsight it would be to have access to that crystal ball to know that the impact of this merger has definitely been bigger than the sum of its parts. 

Look out for more blogs from award winners in the coming weeks; this is the seventh in a series, and you can find the first here.

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