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FEfocus Editorial - Beware MPs bearing 'FE efficiency'

The prospect of yet another reorganisation of FE funding is not one to make the heart leap with joy. There have been so many of these already that it is hard to see a promising way ahead - one feels like the man in the joke, who on asking for directions, was told, "Well, I wouldn't start from here." But the cult of efficiency is pervasive. Whenever a shortage of public funding looms, as it almost always does, there is always someone to argue that inefficiency can be banished with just the right arrangement of institutions and tough management.

The coalition Government has enthusiastically downed great draughts of this ideology, and may yet find itself with a hangover in the morning. The internal debate on whether to try to glue FE's two funding bodies back together to form one is the product of these assumptions (page 1).

But the Government's attempts so far to eliminate supposedly wasteful quangos - themselves often introduced as an alternative to supposedly wasteful Government departments - have largely targeted small, cheap organisations with less critical functions. There is little to suggest that it will save the billions that it intends to wipe from the deficit here. Perhaps - whisper it - the idea of a wasteful quangocracy was always a bit of a myth?

This is not to deny the appeal of an argument that says more efficient arrangements could unlock hundreds of millions of pounds in savings. On some projections, that could halve the damage done to FE by the deficit reduction plans.

Some scepticism is in order, however: for almost as long as FE has had bureaucracy, it has had taskforces to reduce bureaucracy, and yet here we are. Large organisations need a certain amount of bureaucracy to get things done - ask anyone in the private sector.

Sceptics might also question why, if these savings are possible with a single FE funding body, that they were not made when we had one, the Learning and Skills Council, a recently as last year. It is a depressing fact about Government that there are no incentives to save money until you are asked to, because otherwise when you're asked again, you will not have anything left to offer. Permanent secretaries must keep skeletons in their closets just so they can throw them out when the time comes to distract the sharks.

What is more, in a comprehensive spending review there is no guarantee FE would keep any savings it achieved. Ultimately, the Government has to make a political decision to back FE and skills with cash, or not.

It will be judged on its choice, and if lack of skills - not to mention the loss of jobs - contributes to stagnating growth, the Government's strategy for deficit reduction will be called into question.

The level of cuts being faced at the moment may be the biggest challenge yet to this ideology that better organisation is a panacea that will allow "front-line" services to remain untouched while waste is surgically eliminated, as if the front line did not also need a supply line.

This time, structural reform of FE funding might be rather like Captain Edward J Smith debating whether to combine the Fore and Aft Deckchair Rearrangement Committees as the iceberg warnings come in.

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