Forget play, think work

Ian Nash

Improving employability should be colleges' mission, says Sir Andrew Foster in his landmark report

Sir Andrew Foster's blueprint for reform of further education puts colleges at the heart of efforts to improve the skills of the nation.

"Colleges will gain a better reputation if they have a clearly identifiable brand, he says.

"That, I believe, can be achieved by working to improve people's job prospects and focusing on efforts to improve the skills we need to compete in a global economy."

The final report of Sir Andrew's review, commissioned by the Government, offers 89 recommendations to give colleges a freer hand, reduce the number of regulatory bodies, clarify the roles of national government agencies and improve staff and management training.

But the price of freedom, he insists, will be for colleges to do less. "The Government sets priorities and responsive colleges react - usually in pursuit of target-driven funding." But cash, staff and resources are then spread too thinly.

While leisure and personal development education is important, that does not mean all colleges should do it, he says. The report urges colleges to look more to other local organisations such as libraries, museums and voluntary groups.

Developing skills should be the core activity of general FE colleges, he says.

Sixth-form colleges, meanwhile, should retain their primary focus of academic achievement for 16 to 19-year-olds and be treated as a distinctive brand by the Department for Education and Skills.

Two issues that stood out during his investigations, he says, were the need for more specialisation in FE - with centres of vocational excellence and skills academies at the heart of regional and national networks - and the need to take a tougher line on poor performance.

The number of colleges judged inadequate was falling, but there was still an unacceptable number "and the Government cannot allow this to continue,"

he says. "Time must be called on those institutions that have relentlessly failed their communities."

His report is damning about the inspection and regulation colleges must endure.

He criticises "unnecessary complexity and duplication of effort" among bodies dealing with regulation and inspection. He calls for the DfES standards unit to be scrapped and its work given to the Quality Improvement Agency. He also backs plans to merge the Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted.

The report, Realising the Potential, suggests "radical, although gradual reform" of colleges, in line with their peers in Australia, Denmark and the US, which Sir Andrew visited. There he found a far less centralised and regulated framework. "Over time, we see colleges moving towards self-regulation and a gradual loosening of detailed central engagement."

Sir Andrew pulls no punches when criticising the Government. "FE is the neglected 'middle child' between higher education and schools." Given the important benefits FE offers the economy individuals and employers, "the DfES should be looking across its own spheres of operation to create conditions in which FE can prosper and deliver."

His report highlights confused expectations, and a lack of clarity and coherence in policy. "Whilst the Government believes that it has clear and strong leadership arrangements in place, it does not feel so to the staff who work in the colleges. They often feel colleges are given third place to schools and universities.

"There needs to be a much stronger focus and interest in colleges and what they can offer."

The report reveals considerable frustration over "a desperate need for better information" across the wider learning and skills sector.

"We have been dismayed, repeatedly hampered in our task, by the difficulty of debating the work and performance of FE in the absence of sound up-to-date and simple information.

"We cannot understand why there are no information standards across the sector, including comparative value for money data, as there are in other parts of the public sector." Also, "data that is collected in FE is used, if at all, poorly."

He calls for a single agency to collect data and transform it into intelligence. It could be the Higher Education Statistics Agency, LSC or a new body. "There would be clear sense in a single agency covering both further and higher education," he says.

"Equally disturbing is the poor state of workforce planning and development. Almost a quarter of a million people are employed in FE colleges in England. They are the most vital resource the sector has. Yet, until recently there had been little co-ordinated national effort around workforce development."

Similarly, the lack of ethnic diversity in management and governing boards needs attention. "There are only nine minority chairs in 389 colleges and only about five principals."

Morale in colleges is strongly undermined by a perceived lack of parity of esteem and reward with schools and others. Support staff felt particularly undervalued.

Sir Andrew calls for a new national workforce development strategy, developed by the DfES, Association of Colleges and others to produce "a plan of practical action within 12 months." This should also be aimed at improving leadership and management.

"We know from inspection evidence that management and leadership are insufficiently strong and there is insufficient supply."

He recommends that colleges look to other sectors to bring new able managers into colleges.

Colleges pay too little attentions to students' views on major issues, the report says. The voice of learners should be strengthened, colleges should be required to consult them and act on what they say. This should be part of a college "learning entitlement" the report says.

Foster's recommendations


* The main job of general FE and tertiary colleges should be to improve employability and the supply of skilled workers

* The Government should set out its FE vision and where it fits the wider schools and HE agenda

* The Learning and Skills Council must improve the planning, funding and accountability systems to meet student aspirations

* Cash incentives and capital investment should be used to encourage colleges to specialise

* Sixth-form colleges must be treated as a "distinctive brand"

* FE must work more closely with universities to improve access to HE Equality and diversity

* LSC must improve services for those with learning difficulties, as recommended in the Little report

* LSC should hire experts to help recruit more minority staff and managers and support diversity awareness training

* The Government should appoint an independent organisation to review black and ethnic-minority recruitment


* Merge Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted

* Axe DfES standards unit

* Introduce one-year development programme for failing colleges, closing or merging those that fail re-inspection

* Introduce more effective quality controls that measure impact and value for money

* Give vocational lecturers compulsory refresher courses in industry

* Create incentives for people at work to be vocational tutors and visiting lecturers

* Ensure new qualified FE lecturer status does not discourage vocational specialists from entering teaching


* Make colleges consult students, as part of a "learner entitlement" and publish issues tackled every year

* Create "learner panels" to help shape local need


* Create a network of "business colleges" to develop new standards in training focused on employers needs

* Create regional work and skills boards of senior employers to identify skills gaps


* The Government should lead a review of the sector's reputation, working with the LSC and the Association of Colleges

* Principals of larger colleges should take a promotional role regionally and nationally

* The Government and LSC should promote widely the new purpose, brand and benefits of FE colleges

Local services

* Make schools, colleges and others create networks to give students impartial advice

* Let successful colleges and other providers grow through competitive tendering for contracts.

* The LSC and local authorities should collaborate, with absolute clarity about who does what

College governance

* Government should help colleges improve the diversity of governing bodies

* Create a new guide to good governance to clarify the purpose, roles and responsibilities of governors

Improving information

* Give all colleges access to state-of-the-art management information systems

* The LSC and DfES should publish clear information standards, including comparative data on value for money

* Data collection should be simplified and rationalised by a single agency Workforce and leadership development

* The Government - with AoC and others - should develop a clear, targeted FE workforce development plan within 12 months.

* Leadership bodies for schools, colleges and HE should work more closely together

* Colleges and government need a fresh analysis to create a new FE workforce development strategy

* A radical approach to leadership development should include recruitment to colleges of 50 new senior middle managers a year from other sectors Funding

* Funding priorities for schools, colleges and universities should be explained in a single document published regularly

* What the state pays in full or subsidises and what individuals and employers should pay should be spelt out

* The Government should lead a national debate on this issue, to broaden understanding and to raise public awareness about skills


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Ian Nash

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