Improvements require reform as well as cash

This year's public spending review firmly establishes education as a top priority for the Government. The aim is to promote excellence at every level in education. This entails devolving power to providers to encourage flexibility and creativity in meeting learner and employer needs and in responding to local circumstances. Leadership is increasingly seen as vital to provider performance.

While most observers acknowledge the importance of proper funding, there is still concern about the need to accompany money with reforms in order to achieve the step change in performance desired.

In addition to better funding, what else needs to be done to get results? There are five key areas for action and debate. First, we need to recognise the complexity of the challenge. External inspection, three years of intervention funding, an emphasis on continuous improvement, and constant exhortation, have not so far produced the results the Government expects. As the Prime Minister said in his historic appearance at the Parliamentary Liaison Committee: "We need to look very carefully at how we perform in that sector (FE) and make it work more effectively."

There is no magic bullet. However, our understanding of the mix of factors affecting performance is increasing rapidly. Developing effective leaders, promoting institutional and individual ownership of college improvement strategies, ensuring appropriate institutional ethos, procedures and teaching practices, and maintaining high levels of staff motivation are all vital.

We need a clear and shared understanding of what the goal is. How will we know when the sector has reached the levels of performance desired? Is there agreement on what constitutes a high performing learning and skills sector? The Government and the Learning and Skills Council has its targets, but high performance also needs to be measured in terms of creativity, value for money, learner and staff satisfaction and a sense of institutional self-assuredness. Bringing stakeholders together to agree a common definition of high performance avoids the vagueness of the "know it when you see it" solution.

We need more targeted research to provide evidence to guide our efforts. How do we create high performing institutions? What is the correct mix of strategic, human, structural, cultural and technical elements? We also need to know much more about impact, how development affects leader performance, how leadership impacts on learner achievement, how the structure of the system impacts on learner participation and the supply of skills.We need to nurture middle management. Not only because it is the pool from which the next generation of top leaders will be drawn, but also because it is the leadership exhibited by middle managers, such as course and curriculum leaders, that is likely to have the most direct impact on learner achievement.

Middle managers also hold the key to creativity and innovation, their influence on practice is considerable and their knowledge of the organisation and delivery of teaching and learning puts them in a good position to originate ideas and deliver change.

We need to debate the structure of the post-16 system. Can the current structure of providers deliver the improvements desired? The Government doesn't think that it can. As a consequence, colleges and training providers are being encouraged to develop a distinctive mission and to play to their strengths.

Comprehensive local systems rather than comprehensive institutions are seen as the way forward. Questions are being asked about the desirability of educating young people and adults together. If we were to design a network of providers, based on the type of provision demanded now and in the future by learners, employers and the economy, what would it look like?

The chances are we wouldn't start from here, but would the diseconomies of structural upheaval outweigh the benefits that might be gained? Incentives that promise additional funding and new freedoms and opportunities can go some way to compensate for upheaval, but at the moment structural change raises more questions than clear benefits.

Achieving high performance in public sector provision has never been a clear-cut task. Contradictory approaches abound. As we talk about devolving power, other countries seek increasing centralisation. With the results of the public spending review now in the public domain, the time is right to turn from securing better funding to the nature of reform needed to deliver tangible improvements.

Dr Graham Peeke is director of professional and organisational development at the Learning and Skills Development Agency

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