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The greatest threat of all comes from within;Comment;Opinion

We must not allow ourselves to slip back into complacent ways, says Robin Landman

A LOT HAS been written in the press recently about the latent threats to further education contained in the recent White Paper, Learning to Succeed.

It is clear that the deregulatory hints in the consultation document have the potential to expose the sector to unprecedented levels of competition from a range of alternative providers.

I believe that FE should welcome, even embrace, these implicit developments as opportunities to continue to do what we have - or should have - been doing for the past six years and more.

These changes - which are after all, the logical extension of the decision to create the unified Department for Education and Employment - are necessary and timely. Should we not be focusing on the positives in the White Paper, instead of articulating our concerns about the negatives, especially those that are yet to emerge?

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the implications of Learning to Succeed with two old and trusted friends, both of whom have now left the sector - driven out by lacklustre principals who had sought to stifle their innate pleasure and creativity in further education.

Now working contentedly in the private sector, both viewed the White Paper as a potential godsend, giving them the possibility of accessing real money to work with those difficult-to-reach groups we are all being required to engage with.

Far from being concerned about possible threats in the White Paper, the three of us agreed that the main danger was that the Government would not be wholehearted enough in freeing up the new sector. This positive view of the impending legislation contrasts sharply with some the less-than-enthusiastic caveats I have recently heard and read.

Naturally, colleges will be wary of the potential threat represented by opening up the market because, at present, they enjoy a monopoly position in a growth market. But this defensiveness will merely serve to confirm the perception of some of those in the corridors of power that we have a tendency to whinge.

Don't misunderstand me. At its best, I am an enthusiastic supporter of further education. However, I will never be an uncritical supporter of anything, and my chosen profession is no exception. As a "critical friend", I think that some of the defensive responses betray a lack of self-confidence and if that perceived lack of confidence is translated into fatalistic inertia, then we really will be in trouble.

I agree with those who complain of the increasingly onerous task of servicing the funding methodology and its administrative burden.

This has given the sector cause for concern, but the number of such cases is diminishing. The only logical result of the strictures now being applied will be to compound risk aversion on the part of the most creative elements in the sector. Even those who have taken satisfaction in the recent discomfort of the more entrepreneurial colleges cannot imagine that this is a good thing for the long-term health and development of the sector.

If the Government continues to regulate the entire sector based on the shortcomings of the few, the result will be conservatism, which will neither serve their interests, ours, or most important of all, those of our customers.

The reality is that if FE is under threat at all it is under threat from itself. If we allow ourselves to slip back into complacency, then we will be creating a vacuum for others to fill. We are slowly but surely moving towards the self-critical culture that will permit the sector to survive this, and subsequent, radical restructuring of our business environment. It is also probably true that there is sufficient space in the brave new world of the Learning and Skills Council for a range of providers.

At the moment, FE fails to meet the needs of significant sections of the community. There is no reason to suppose that this situation will radically alter in the near future and until we correct this shortfall in participation, we cannot justifiably carp if others are able to. On the other hand, Government should not require us to achieve the challenges set out in Learning to Succeed whilst simultaneously burying us in bureaucracy.

Robin Landman is an education consultant and former college manager

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