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Fed up with the tyranny of ministers

Foster FE review told of continuing interference from Whitehall and funding chiefs. Ian Nash reports

Organisations representing colleges and those who work in them have condemned the Government's obsession with micromanaging further education.

Submissions to the review of FE by Sir Andrew Foster reveal overwhelming concern about increasing intervention by the Government and its agents, who are accused of dictating what colleges do in their day-to-day work.

Organisations representing employers, staff and students all point to an unrelenting growth in bureaucracy - which the Government has repeatedly pledged to cut - and more prescriptive control than ever over the curriculum, teaching and testing.

There is considerable criticism, in the responses, of the Learning and Skills council. John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "The LSC effectively became responsible for planning needs, taking this out of colleges and putting it into the hands of bureaucrats who are not well equipped to do it."

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said: "The role of the local LSC should be limited to an intelligent audit of what has been done. Planning should be left to the colleges and other FE agencies. The frustration is not with trying to reach targets but with the state thinking it knows how that should be done."

Union leaders, who have had extensive talks with management and other staff in advance of their submissions to the review, report staff at all levels feel they have lost "control, legitimacy and authority" over their professional lives.

Nadine Cartner, head of policy at the Association for College Management, said: "There is serious concern about the tightness of control, the tyranny of targets, and the hefty overhang of bureaucracy in the sector."

The Foster review is coming to the end of its first phase. A report will be published later this month at the annual summer conference of the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Central to that report will be key questions Sir Andrew will put to the sector about the future of FE. They will indicate where he thinks FE should be moving.

Those who have spoken to him are confident that he will offer much-needed clarity of vision - but most are sceptical that there will be the political will in the Government to carry out changes.

Dr Brennan said: "His recommendations could prove as challenging for government as for colleges. I don't expect him to be a pussy cat. What he will say will be demanding but in a positive and constructive way."

Many organisations gave advice to Foster in confidence but both employers and development agencies have made it clear to FE Focus they share the concerns of others in FE. For example, there is wide concern over the National Qualifications Framework "straitjacket". Dr Brennan said colleges no longer developed their own courses but took them "off the shelf" from the framework, reducing their ability to respond to the needs of communities and employers.

The point is echoed in the Niace submission, going to Sir Andrew this week.

Mr Tuckett said: "We really need some intelligent thinking to re-balance our approach to meeting local needs and national demands. The way people organise their lives does not always fit neat audits and targets."

The AoC said members were very critical of the target-setting regime.

Again, this was a concern expressed by all 14 organisations contacted by FE Focus. Dr Brennan said: "They are too busy chasing multiple targets to get everything done. People become cynical, even about things that have merit.

Either they forget about them 'until the end of the week' or respond superficially. The sector needs less central interference. "What happened to 'Trust in FE'? The lighter-touch approach to colleges and three-year planning have been put into abeyance."

Another cause for anxiety is the confusion and tensions created by different government policies. Some of these favour separate 16-19 institutions, others want more focus on employer engagement and then there is the contribution FE makes to HE, including access courses.

Dr Brennan said the AoC saw no need for major structural change and the rich variety of FE institutions should be preserved. "If you want a system that's dynamic and responsive, you have to allow for a variety of institutions," he said

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