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Give us funds to take risks

"IT IS action at the local level which really makes a difference." That could be a slogan for any Further Education college prospectus.

In fact it is a phrase lifted from Lady Blackstone's introduction to Skills for Neighbourhood Renewal, the report from the Government's Policy Action Team on Skills. The report makes much better reading than the title suggests. It tries to explain why past government initiatives to encourage a return to learning have not worked - particularly in deprived areas.

The conclusions aren't startling. People who took steps to improve their skills were tripped up by the following: unsuitable courses at unsuitable times; a whole variety of financial issues; poor local transport; incomprehensible information about what is available; and loss of nerve when confronted by an intimidating college.

But the fact that this is unsurprising doesn't let those of us in colleges off the hook.

The report makes one obvious point very clear: the answers will be found not by government edict but in local action. And there are good case studies in the report to show what can be done. Nimble local footwork, imagination, a willingness to work with other agencies, and a determination to put students' needs above the organisation's convenience - that's what makes the difference.

College staff may say they've been doing this for years but we can't have done it very well or there would not be unmet demand, for which there is persuasive evidence in the report.

Have we not also continually said that the problem lies not with us but with the lack of demand? Of course we have, and we have also tried to blame others: it is all the fault of schools which turn people off education; it's training and enterprise councils which have failed to stimulate an appetite for training: it's employers who won't let people have time off and don't reward employees who get qualifications.

One of the report's key reommendations is the establishment of Neighbourhood Learning Centres, which sound like an FE college of rose-tinted memory: small, open all hours, simply equipped, welcoming people who come for a short time, and, above all, a friendly place: all the virtues of a laundrette, corner shop and social centre. College outreach centres might fit the bill, the report concedes, even if their main sites don't.

There is some good stuff about funding: "Community-based providers need a long lead time to win trust and embed in the community..."; "over-reliance on outputs and targets works against reluctant learners"; and "the contract culture in education and training works against proper partnership..."

Quite. You cannot safely engage in mould-breaking activities when you are tied to the current funding system. You need greater stability of funding to give you the means, and confidence, to fail as well as succeed in this difficult, unpredictable work.

It would be nice to think that those who are planning the funding for learning and skills councils read the report. But the consultation paper on post-16 funding has an ominous paragraph which proposes that the councils might "renegotiate" funding during a financial year, if targets look like not being met. That's code for a clawback of money.

At the moment, the Further Education Funding Council claws cash back at the end of the year if a college under-performs. But missing a target does not necessarily mean that you have spent less money. You may have to raid your reserves, or sell family silver to pay back the funds.

Taking money off you at the end of the year is destabilising. The threat of it happening during the year is exactly what will stop colleges even attempting the risk-taking asked for in Neighbourhood Renewal. Would the Government's right hand like to be introduced to its left?

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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