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Bureaucracy busters spread net wider

Taskforce to call all organisations to account over paperwork. Ian Nash reports

ALL organisations dealing with colleges will be scrutinised by the Sweeney taskforce, set up by the Learning and Skills Council to cut red tape, paperwork and waste by a quarter.

Sir George Sweeney, chair of the taskforce, or "LSC bureaucracy busting group", told FE Focus - in his first media interview as head of the group - that efforts to identify cuts would not be restricted to LSC operations.

Every organisation - from the exam boards and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to the National Audit Office and the Office for Standards in Education - will be called to account over the bureaucracy they impose on colleges.

"Our remit will be very much wider than the LSC. We will say things about what these other bodies should do. That is the vision of the rest of the committee," he said, following the taskforce's first meeting in Coventry.

Sir George's message will reassure colleges. Many had expressed concern, through the TESAssociation of Colleges' Cut Red Tape in Colleges campaign, that scrutiny would be too restricted.

While the campaign has so far focused on the LSC, concern is being expressed about inspection paper mountains. Also, the level of discontent over exam boards reached such a peak last year that the Association for College Management suggested colleges ditch them and set up their own board.

The Sweeney taskforce will focus on four areas of concern: audit, funding, monitoring and data collection. "We all recognise that red tape has become overly burdensome. Together, we have the opportunity to redress the balance," said Sir George.

Sir George is looking for a "sensible balance between accountability and trust". He and his committee are convinced that the heart of the problem is a failure to communicate - particularly at government level - and an increased reliance on data to furnish evidence of success.

"The way organisations get accountability is to measure everything in sight. I am not convinced that this is the best way." Quality gives way to quantity; trust gives way to accountability. Thousands of hours are absorbed in audit trails, checks and balances, he said.

"People have less and less time to explain what's happening."

Worse still, cash is diverted from spending on students and trainees. "We can and must redeploy those resources to produce a more effective learning system."

This is a gargantuan task for a committee that has less than six months to recommend changes that must take effect from this autumn. There are nine regional workshops in February and March. Sir George insists that as many colleges as possible must participate if the taskforce recommendations are to have effect.

By the end of June, the committee must identify those cuts which can be made within 18 months and others that will take longer. He refused to predict where the axe would fall first, although it is a fair bet that the hated learning provider reviews and duplicated demands for audited information will be early victims.

Nor would he say what the cut of 25 per cent actually means. Is it a 25 per cent cut in paperwork? A reduction in time spent? Or a pound;55 million saving in the estimated pound;220m annual admin bill? This will be considered at the next committee meeting later this month.

Whatever the interpretation, there must be "a shift of expenditure and energy primarily to the learner," he said. A word of warning to principals:

"I will be looking to see what colleges can do to cut bureaucracy."

Sir George, himself a principal of Knowsley College, has served on many national committees, cutting his teeth on Helena Kennedy's inquiry into how to attract more people into FE. "I know there is a huge amount you can do if you are ambitious and if those ambitions are sensible, sound and coherent in what they are trying to achieve."

Some bureaucracy was essential, he said. "Proper accountability is not a burden. It makes us better, more effective. You can have accountability in a high-trust environment. Our recommendations will spell out the essentials."

He expects those recommendations to be carried out in full and is confident that John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC, will back him. "He has been courageous and visionary in setting up this group. We now have a series of consultations in which we are genuinely trying to gauge the interests and enthusiasm of the whole sector. It would be inconceivable to me to see this as a public relations thing to keep people quiet. I have lots of things to do with my time and I would not waste it on that."

Despite the short timetable, he called for measured thinking over the way ahead. "Our sector is full of people with all the answers on one piece of paper, ready to whip it out at any time. We are too often in a tearing hurry. I want to get it right, rather than get quick headlines," he said.

THE BUREAUCRACY BUSTERS

* Sir George Sweeny, principal, Knowsley Community College

* Lynn Sedgmore, principal amp; CE, Guildford College

* Michael Galloway, principal, York College

* Reg Chapman, principal, Blackpool and the Fylde College

* Andrew Thomson, principal, Long Road Sixth Form College

* Jackie Fisher, principal, Newcastle College

* Catherine Fogg, training executive, British Chambers of Commerce

* Robert Raven, principal, Leicester Adult Education College

* Gary Williams, executive director, Wiltshire and Swindon LSC

* Hilary Chadwick, executive director, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight LSC

* Dr John Brennan, director of FE development, AOC

* Peter Lauener, director of learning delivery, DFES (Sheffield)

* Stephen Grix, head of post-16 education, OFSTED

* Nicky Perry, director of inspection, Adult Learning Inspectorate

* Ken Pascoe, director of operations, LSC

* Patrick Rooney, secretariat for the taskforce, LSC

REGIONAL WORKSHOPS

Date Region Place

March 4 North East Durham

March 7 Yorkshire amp; Humber Leeds

March 8 South West Taunton

March 11 North West Preston Warrington

March 11 East of England Cambridge

March 13 East Midlands Nottingham

March 14 London London

March 18 South East Guildford

TBA West Midlands Birmingham

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