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Collaboration new key for post-16s

Changes are ahead for colleges used to competing for cash, reports Ian Nash Colleges will be urged to rethink their entire approach to curriculum development and staff training in a far-reaching report to be published this autumn.

For many this will mean the biggest departure from conventional thinking since they were made independent of local education authorities two years ago. The finishing touches are now being put on the report from the Further Education Funding Council's technology and learning committee, to be published in September.

Its central thrust is to call for collaboration by all 457 general FE, specialist and sixth-form colleges in the development of the use of information technology to improve learning. Such a strategy has had to be fought for - the committee was under political pressure to come up with a competitive scheme for allocating IT development cash, involving bids in the market-place.

But chairman Sir Gordon Higginson resisted fiercely. "I insisted a collaborative approach would be far more effective. At the end of the day, we won." Cost-effectiveness and rapid dissemination of good practice were key arguments.

Capital cash allocations for new technology in colleges total around Pounds 160 million a year. This is topped up substantially through individual effort. Sir William Stubbs, the FEFC chief executive, is also expected to use the report to lever more cash out of the Treasury.

The urgency with which he views this issue is underlined by his demand that the report should be out for consultation by September - three months earlier than planned - in order to influence the next public spending round.

Many of the committee's findings are disturbing. While some large colleges have state-of-the-art computer networks, others are not even on the starting blocks in the race. Also, the vast bulk of cash has been ploughed into management, to cope with the mountain of bureaucratic demands since incorporation, rather than into learning.

The report's recommendations are under close wraps, but there is now a clear indication of its steer. The set piece is at least one central agency to handle computer purchases, development of course materials and staff training.

"Colleges could buy incrementally to meet their requirements," says Sir Gordon. "Buy as you wish and replace as you wish. Then you would not all be faced with the same demand to develop a great box of tricks for, say, Pounds 250,000." He has had to strike a careful balance between encouraging those who have failed to invest and others who are at the cutting edge.

The agency, not the colleges, would face the inevitable questions of redundant technology and upgrading equipment. Staff training could be pitched at a local, regional or national level as appropriate.

"The network could improve the effectiveness of learning and use of limited resources, it can extend the range of provision and increase the flexibility of delivery."

He warned, however, that "it could be one great white elephant if not handled properly".

But it should not. There are models to draw on from HE and schools, such as the Joint Academic Network system which feeds universities nationally and internationally, and the IT dissemination systems developed by the National Council for Educational Technology.

Success or failure may depend on the extent to which the individual colleges are willing to relinquish some of their autonomy over staff and courseware development and their control over several hundred pounds of their budget. Universities and schools have found the sacrifice worth making.

Sixth-form colleges may find it easier than others, since they have about 50 per cent of their curriculum in commmon. The overlap between one general FE college and the next is at best around 5 per cent. These are issues Sir Gordon expects will be sorted out in the three months of consultation with colleges following publication of his report.

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