'College merger mania has failed. We need a new model'

Pledging extra funding is all well and good, but what FE really needs is collaboration not competition, says Sean Vernell

'College merger mania has failed. We need a new model'

In just over a week, we will be heading to the polls to vote in this year’s general election. For most of us, never in our lifetimes has there been such a clear difference between the main political parties in how they would approach the economy, society and education.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have offered additional funding for further education, with the Tories committing £1.8 billion on new buildings and the Lib Dems pledging £10,000 per adult for lifelong learning. Labour has promised to end the historic funding inadequacies and place the sector at the centre of its radical proposals to transform Britain, including a pledge to create 80,000 climate change apprenticeships.


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Whoever is triumphant on 12 December, change is imminent. But is FE ready for these radical changes? 

Extra funding is the starting point without which we can’t begin the transformation necessary to harness the true potential of the sector. But additional funding on its own doesn’t address the crucial issue of leadership.

FE leadership and merger mania

It was a breath of fresh air to read Stuart Rimmer’s article about FE leadership. He describes a situation in which principals are systemically focused on failed models of leadership and make short-term financial decisions that are diametrically opposed to the requirements of quality in education provision.

He writes: “Incorporation has failed to protect the security of colleges, of staff and students. It has failed to protect continued investment, it has failed to protect high standards, it has failed to protect support from those in high government since 1992.”

Finally, a much-needed debate is opening up within the sector about the failed model of incorporation. We need a new model – that much is clear. Merger mania, which has gripped the sector over the past five years, has failed. The leadership of some of these supergroups has slashed and burned, leaving behind hollowed-out shells. The few remaining staff are often demoralised and frustrated with the direction of their college. The fool's gold of “economies of scale” has been exposed as a huge drain on cash and quality.

This managerial approach, based on an acceptance of the market in education, has made a bad situation worse. Management see themselves as firefighters running around colleges putting out fires – too often it is petrol and not water that is used to douse the flames.

Those who work in the sector will recognise the ridiculous decisions that lead to a race to the bottom within colleges and between colleges.

Timetabling troubles

It starts with timetabling, something that we can all agree is essential to effective teaching. Those outside education couldn't be judged for assuming that timetabling would be organised coherently and successfully.  And how wrong they'd be. Those working in the sector find this basic aspect of college organisation is regularly a complete shambles.

Timetables are drawn up with cuts in mind. Fears of not reaching internally set recruitment targets mean that managers often timetable the least number of groups and then desperately add more at the last moment to deal with student demand.

At the beginning of term, management insists on telling staff to continue to enrol students even after groups are full, and yet no extra staff are recruited to match demand. This causes total chaos when lessons begin with overcrowded and chaotic classrooms.

This, in turn, results in many students – often those who are confident that their results provide other options – leaving within the first few weeks for other colleges. Millions of pounds of funding flows out of the college, leaving with the students.

Management then resorts to employing agency staff at the last minute to cover the groups without teachers. The use of agency staff is another kind of fool’s gold: organising staffing in this way was meant to control staffing costs by creating a more flexible workforce. But the reality is, it has become the default position in most colleges. It’s a very expensive staffing solution with disastrous effects for those on such contracts – and it ultimately leads to a worsening in the student learning experience, with many more following their peers out the door.

The race is then on to recoup this loss in funding: cutting guided learning hours, reconfiguring the weekly contact time and forcing staff to teach more units. This is usually followed up by redundancy trawls across teaching and support staff – with enhancing the learner experience often cited as the issue. 

The danger of competition, not collaboration

Principals do express dissatisfaction with having to make these difficult decisions but the reality is, while some dislike the consequences, they fail to recognise them as the logical outcome of their political and ideological educational world view. I suspect few would accept that competition within the sector is the root of the problem.

Instead, they blindly accept the central ideological trope fostered by every government over the past 40 years or so that without competition there would be no incentive. Managers would feel no pressure to innovate and makes things happen, lecturers would simply dust down the same old tired lesson plans and students would turn up when they wanted to.

Thank heaven that we have competition ensuring these issues are kept in check… 

The most inspiring ideas and initiatives come about when there is collaboration. Where lecturers and managers meet together as equals and discuss new teaching methods – what has worked and what has not – in an atmosphere of mutual respect and without fear of failing. And when this is underpinned by a long-term funding commitment from the government and a recognition that FE should be centred around the needs of the communities and society, everyone wins. 

This general election has opened up the debate about the role of the market and competition in education. The successful leaders of the future FE sector will be those who understand that planning and collaboration are the key to success and not the outdated 19th-century vagaries of the marketplace.

Sean Vernell is the vice-chair of the University and College Union's further education committee and branch secretary at Capital City College Group

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