Why government should trust more and control less

We need more collaboration between government and college leaders to agree the best course of action, says David Hughes
4th January 2021, 5:21pm
David Hughes

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Why government should trust more and control less

https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/general/why-government-should-trust-more-and-control-less
Coronavirus: The Government Needs To Collaborate More With Colleges, Writes David Hughes

The uncertainties caused by the pandemic look set to continue for some months to come, that's for certain. The only other certainty I can keep a hold of is that college leaders will continue to be asked to make difficult and very important decisions in quick time, with inadequate evidence, based on rapidly and frequently changing guidance. Those decisions are not getting any easier with a government intent on keeping schools and colleges open despite the increasing number of voices urging them to close for at the least the next month.

Clearly, we had all hoped that, by this stage, we'd be looking forward to the post-Covid normal. Instead, we're at the peak of the second wave. Given how the new virus strain has heightened risks, it's important to reflect on the lessons we should have learned over the first nine months of the pandemic. Lessons for all of us in how to lead in a crisis; lessons for government in how to handle it better from now on.


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The first lesson is that government needs to trust more and try to control less. The experience of the pandemic so far is that it is fine to trust college leaders to make sensible, quick decisions on the basis of the facts and in the best interests of their students and safety. We can even trust them to be hugely flexible and responsive as new evidence emerges. At the Association of Colleges we always knew this and have been upset at the often schools-focused decisions that make little sense in a college setting, which have been imposed on college leaders without adequate adaptation.

Coronavirus: Giving more power to college leaders

Trusting does not mean that there haven't been, and won't be, mistakes but college leaders know their own local circumstances better than anyone. So, with the right framework of advice, guidance and local support, we would back them every time to make good decisions.

We've also seen that having clear, timely and supportive national guidance is extremely helpful and can be empowering. The Department for Education has shown that it can move very quickly when it comes to changing rules and communicating. This was fantastically helpful very early on in the pandemic and there continue to be cases where we've seen fast action from officials when we've raised issues with them.

However, the capacity to move quickly is something that should be used sparingly. The fact that it's possible to send an alert out on a Sunday expecting action on a Monday doesn't mean this should be the normal way of working. What's been missing is the second lesson I take from this pandemic - that we need more collaboration between government and college leaders to agree the best course of action. Education has always worked better when there's joint planning, with improvisation only where it is essential, and when there is a process for engaging people who know what it is like to run a college debating and deciding with those who know about the science, the pandemic, the wider considerations of the economy and so on.

The third thing we've learned - and again it is something we already knew - is that the rules colleges are subject to are far too complicated. Colleges are complex, because of the range of ages, students and their support for businesses, but the nine main funding lines with multiple sub-variants, the overlapping regulators and the arcane rules against which they are audited really do need major streamlining. The pandemic has made things worse, not better, with even more funding lines, each with their own rules for who is eligible and their own reconciliation, with no room between to be able to respond to local needs. Frustrating and unnecessary.

The fourth thing we've learned is that the college technology infrastructure needs an upgrade and that digital poverty is debilitating. Colleges moved rapidly to support online teaching and learning but their infrastructure really was creaking and around 100,000 young people don't even have devices or fast enough connections to be able to benefit. We've not been able to estimate the adult digital poverty that hinders their education. At the same time, colleges have seen even more cyber-attacks, which have stressed their systems, in some cases beyond breaking point.  

The fifth thing we've learned is that the post-16 system needs to be better prepared for the future. The absence of an over-arching strategy and secure funding has left colleges being micro-managed from Whitehall, with highly targeted and ring-fenced funding for specific groups of people in particular circumstances and with certain characteristics. All reasonable from a national perspective but always causing problems on the ground, where real people who want to access education or training often find themselves barred because they don't quite fit the criteria.

The new National Skills Fund is a good example here. There is some new money, around £90 million, to support people over 24 to have free level 3 education and training. This is good news and welcomed, but rather than trusting colleges to deliver on that intent, we have a programme with constraints and eligibility rules designed in Whitehall - a list of qualifications they are allowed to deliver, anyone already with a level 3 ineligible and no maintenance support to offer living costs for people studying (unlike in higher education). Much better would have been to trust colleges to make local decisions on priorities. They would have set those priorities on the back of labour market intelligence, working with employers and local employment advisers to assess needs and help stimulate demand.

Perhaps the most important thing we know, and which the pandemic has reinforced, is that it's easier to point out what is wrong and come up with ideas. It's much harder to make them work. That's why we need more collaboration, more co-design, more time talking about what can be achieved and how. Maybe, just maybe, that is what the FE White Paper will help to bring. I hope so.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

 

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