College leaders have reacted defensively to ministers' request to clarify what their mission should be. But defensiveness will not deal with the problems of general FE colleges.
The call to clarify colleges' mission and ethos should be welcomed. It allows colleges to redefine their role in the context of the new Learning and Skills Council planning framework.
In the old world, colleges were expected to expand, providing all services necessary in order to satisfy demand. Efforts were driven by a funding regime which rewarded growth and diversification.
It is therefore not surprising that these priorities appear in hundreds of college mission statements. We portrayed ourselves as providing all things to all people. As a result we sometimes attracted criticism that we did nothing very well.
In the new world, Government targets and Learning and Skills Council planning shapes the system. Although the detail is still emerging, the role of colleges is very different. A planning body was bound to examine the raison d'etre of every college and ask precise questions about the contribution it can make. The debate could be fractious, and yet the LSC planning approach could also be liberating. Colleges will no longer feel driven to do everything at any cost, but be able to focus on their unique strengths and choose the areas to develop. College leaders will be able to reject new developments if they feel there is not enough funding to back them.
Few colleges are truly able to do everything. In future we will no longer have to work with the broad tag of "general" FE College. Each college could have special characteristics: the rural college, with a general and broad curriculum; the specialist vocational college; the large urban college with a "civic" role. For large colleges engaged in 16-19, vocational specialisms, higher education and adult and community education, the process will support efforts to create a separate ethos for each area of work.
Armed with a better understanding of what colleges in an area do, the local LSC could be in a better position to match supply and demand, concentrating on the gaps.
A clear mission also provides a focus for creating excellence in teaching and learning. To realise these benefits, however, the Government should take funding seriously and alleviate the financial pressures that have forced colleges to grow and diversify at all costs.
The struggle to raise cash led to aggressive commpetition for students, undermined performance and hampered improvement. General FE colleges, seen to be all things to all people, were sitting ducks. They could be unfairly blamed for all failings in our vocational education and training system when the real fault lay with policy-makers or a lack of funding.
The corollary of laying to rest the "myth" of the universal general FE colleges is that an individual or employer can no longer expect their local college to provide all their needs. The task of ensuring local access to the whole range of learning firmly passes to the LSC. But that, after all, is what a planning authority is for.
Nick Lewis is principal of Broxtowe College, Nottingham