Foster: we can reshape colleges in two years

Ian Nash

Report criticises ministers, LSC, colleges and inspectors as it argues for a speedy transformation of FE. Ian Nash reports

Colleges could be relaunched as skills training centres within two years, says Sir Andrew Foster, who led the Government's biggest-ever inquiry into further education.

Sir Andrew said that, while his proposals were radical, they did not require time-consuming changes. "If work begins now, we can have much of what we want planned within the year and in place within two," he said.

He called for general FE and tertiary colleges to focus on their key role of improving the skills needed for global competition - and to tie this to a stronger brand image. "This is the way colleges will boost their reputations and become known for excellence," he said.

Sixth-form colleges should be treated as a distinct brand, concentrating on academic achievement for 16 to 19-year-olds. Restrictions on the opening of new sixth-form colleges should be lifted.

"I am not proposing abolition of the Learning and Skills Council or handing everything to full market competition. That would require years of consultations. All the recommendations in my report are things that can happen swiftly," he said.

Sir Andrew calls for cash incentives for colleges to develop vocational courses, less central Government control, fewer organisations having a say over quality control and inspections, and greater clarity over what the LSC and Department for Education and Skills do.

Everyone is taken to task in his report. The Government is criticised for making too many confusing and often conflicting demands of colleges. Sir Andrew also blames colleges for trying to do too much and calls for the LSC to rationalise its operations and do less micro-management.

"The local LSCs' relationships with colleges have just not worked. I think Mark Haysom (LSC chief executive) knows that. Much is being done through his Agenda for Change to tackle these problems."

Sir Andrew's toughest words come when he calls for action within a year to deal with failing colleges and courses. There are about 16 currently judged inadequate by Ofsted and many would improve, he said.

"Half of all colleges have some failing courses," he said. "These should shape up or face closure, amalgamation or be taken over by other colleges, private providers or voluntary groups."

Sir Andrew proposes a number of short-lived committees and working groups to tackle the issues he raises. Life says a group representing colleges and government should be set up to draft a clearly-targeted plan of action to improve FE workforce development within 12 months.

He says the Government should create a number of action groups, including regional work and skills boards of senior employers to help identify skills gaps. It should also set up an independent body to review black and ethnic minority recruitment.

"Everything should be done to ensure rapid implementation," Sir Andrew said. He has called for a "time-limited implementation unit" to ensure that significant changes happen within 18 months.

John Brennan, chief inspector of the Association of Colleges, said: "We can agree with Sir Andrew Foster that the sector must focus even more on its contribution to skills formation. But, in making this focus, we should not forget that our core purpose will remain equipping individuals with the skills and knowledge needed to realise their hopes, their ambitions, their dreams of a better future."

Gordon Marsden, MP, a member of the Commons education select committee who chairs the associate parliamentary skills group, says Sir Andrew should have taken the LSC to task more than he did.

He said: "What I would have liked to have seen is a stronger critique of the LSC. The LSC is using too many resources for micro-managing colleges and I think there should be a discussion about its future role. After all, it is spending pound;10 billion a year of taxpayers' money."

* ian.nash@tes.co.uk

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Ian Nash

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