RECENT reports in FE Focus, must make grim reading for ministers. The sector is the only practical vehicle that can deliver wider participation in learning in time for the next General Election.
However, the ability of colleges to meet the Government's targets has been weakened by the confusion and incompetence of the Further Education Funding Council.
Consider the recent news. Sixty colleges - some 13 per cent of the sector - are still financially weak. The council would doubtless claim that this is a legacy of Tory cuts, which is partly true. But few will have forgotten the stop-go appproach it has taken on franchising, the "demand-led element" (providing cash for growth), and its frustrating use of retrospective guidance.
Twelve per cent of governing body places are unfilled. Inspection reports suggest weak governance at one college in seven. The new director of post-compulsory education at the Office for Standards in Education has reportedly said that it will look at governance but thinks it "a bit heavy" to go so hard on people "who are basically volunteers". It's a bit late now. Governors are wary of being made scapegoats for systemic failures.
The Government is committed to a 700,000 increase in student numbers by 2002. To achieve this it has given a 7 per cent increase in funding to colleges over the past two years. But student numbers, look set to drop by about 5 per cent over the same period - a reduction of more than 150,000. Far from the "something for something" demanded by Malcolm Wicks, lifelong learning minister , ministers may regard this as something for nothing.
The council is in such dire straits that student numbers are to be bolstered by changing the baseline fo course eligibility from nine hours to three for many courses. This is just the latest of several panic changes that show the council's strategic bankruptcy.
The funding system has become a Byzantine monster that stifles participation, promotes conservatism and is hugely expensive. Armies of teaching and support staff battle to keep up with the latest nuance in the rules, some of them retrospective. I am sure that Bilston College's auditors were not alone in observing that the so-called "clarification" of guidance in fact amounted to a change in the rules.
Lisa Dean's recent letter (FE Focus, May 26) had some telling comments on this shifting of the goalposts. She writes: "For 1998-99 the FEFC told colleges four months after the year-end about targets for the previous June." And this from a very competent former regional finance director with the council.
The Government has now promised a transparent and simple funding system. We shall see.
What is clear is that the council, far from being open and transparent, has become opaque and arrogant. The recent appeal by the former governors of Wirral Metropolitan College to the FEFC's own ombudsman, and the refusal of the council to abide by his verdict, is a case in point.
At Kingston, the council apologised, eventually, for putting the governors in the dock for trying to implement the Prime Minister's policy of raising overseas income.
All of this is depressing news for the sector, which deserves better leadership. If only we could be sure the Learning and Skills Council, which will replace the FEFC, will provide it, but key issues remain unresolved. Tthe Cinderella sector seems as far away from the ball as ever.
Paul Goddard-Patel is a former assistant principal and finance director of Bilston Community College, which was closed last year.