Enlist in the regions of honour

Mick Brown

Mike Austin laments, as we all do, the by-passing of further education in the creation of regional agencies for economic development under the new Labour Government (TES, September 12).

I'm not surprised however. Fragmentation, coupled with a leadership void and an absence of coherence in the sector has ensured that FE has maintained its traditional status in the highly stratified order of the British educational system - invisible.

The challenge is to accept the realities of our position and then begin to plot our future. So where are we?

First, we are not a sector in any sense, other than that we all rely on the Further Education Funding Council for money. We represent an assortment of institutions with significantly diverse aims, financial structures and histories, surviving on our wits and guile. We should not, therefore, be surprised that the public perception of us as a sector is also weak.

Second, we lack leadership. The different aims make this difficult, but we have actually eschewed it. Having largely recovered from years of employment disputes, and having created the Association of Colleges, we prepared for the future by dumping the regional structure of the AOC's predecessor (the Association for Colleges) just at the time it needed strengthening.

Now, four months after the general election, the AOC is still working out which college falls into which constituency, and is itself pulled in many different and no doubt expensive directions. I am not blaming the AOC - the membership is sovereign and needs to sort out its priorities.

Third, we remain indefinable. In the absence of real leadership, it has fallen to the 453 colleges to define themselves locally - and very successful they have been, as the 3.5 million students will testify. But this is local with a capital 'L', not regional and certainly not national.

Fourth, we are low status. In our class-conscious system, we occupy the secondary modern, or "tertiary modern" slot, as a perceptive commentator remarked, In the value-laden terms familiar to us all, second chance becomes "second rate", and advanced FE becomes "sub-degree". (I know David Melville, chief executive of the FEFC, wants to change this, but experience shows that labelling the advanced bits "AFE" leads to most of our work being described as "NAFE" - pointedly "non-advanced".) So low is our status in public policy terms that we now exhibit the classic features of the old much-derided nationalised industries: exhorted to imitate successful independent companies, while simultaneously enjoying the vagaries of short-term adjustments to fiscal policy. We have attained the enviable position previously only enjoyed by the likes of BR and British Steel.

Having said all this, the realities of budget-capping, coupled with a new and often collaborative regionalism begin to point to a different future.

The moves that are taking place across the regions - often resulting from the need to exploit changes in European Social Fund arrangements - represent a recognition of the need to organise and marshal whatever local resources and influence we have.

It doesn't really matter if the AOC is late into the game, as long as the best regional structures develop an effective partnership with the AOC - and soon. These developments are "bottom-up" and crucial - don't wait for an invitation.

The East Midlands Principals' Strategic Forum, for example, is an active, fiercely independent group, open to all principals in the area, which is now beginning to develop its own momentum in areas beyond EU funding. In addition to shaping the regional agenda on a consultative and democratic basis, it will propose structures to support regional AOC activity.

Colleges will adapt differently to this changing environment. Some are sufficiently large and confident to go it alone; others will seek comfort in a merger, or an arrangement with a university. Some may go into partnership with a training and enterprise council, while for others the local authority will be the partner most able to stand the test of time. Multiple alliances will be formed and as new structures emerge so FE will redefine itself in the context of local alliances and relationships. The negative features of present "sector" will disappear.

As the changes to be made by the new Government come into force, the reality of the culture of co-operation will be expressed in the ways in which we adapt to fulfil our new regional roles. This will represent the true and ultimate test of independence for those colleges which are able to form a vision of the future with themselves in it, and then, in collaboration, set about shaping it.

Mick Brown is principal of South East Derbyshire College

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