Inquisitor in search of simple answers

Ian Nash

Ian Nash met Margaret Hodge MP as she prepared to lead the parliamentary committee inquiry into further education.

The look on Margaret Hodge's face as she listens to the way colleges get their cash is something between bemusement and disbelief - tinged with despair.

Core funds, capped budgets, competitive bids for a cash pool, convergence, franchising to industry and the demand-led element. "If it's that complex, it can't be right," the London School of Economics graduate and former consultant with Price Waterhouse told The TES.

But, on the eve of what was promising to be the most penetrating of parliamentary inquiries into the state of further education, Ms Hodge, MP for Barking and chair of the all-party education and employment select committee - was willing to be convinced that there is a sound rationale for the funding system.

She was willing also to be convinced of the merits of franchising courses from colleges to industry and the community. But on hearing of the complexities and past scams surrounding some of the operations, bemusement gave way to deep scepticism.

"What is it the college can give to private industry, using public cash, that the industry can't buy for itself?" she asks. Ms Hodge has a disarming way of asking seemingly obvious questions that do not occur to other people. And it is no good those she interrogates hiding behind the screen of New Labour's apparent support for such policies.

When she called Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett to explain to the select committee last month where an estimated Pounds 900 million shortfall for HE was coming from, she showed a resolute willingness to be a thorn in the side of her own party in Government.

In the coming weeks, there will be calls for evidence and public interrogation of key figures in FE. This will be coupled with a deeper investigation of written evidence and whistle-stop tours of colleges - good and bad - under the committee's five-year review of FE since incorporation.

Supporting her team of MPs will be a formidable group of college managers, administrators and academics. It is expected to include Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Brunel University, and Roger Maclure, former finance director of the Further Education Funding Council and architect of the funding methodology she finds so disconcerting.

Ms Hodge is demanding simple answers to simple questions: "What do you think FE is? What do you think it is not? What are your five priorities? Where does the money go?" Answers which include words such as "convergence" and "average levels of funding" will not be acceptable.

She is also somewhat sceptical - but again is waiting to be convinced - of FE's incursions into higher education. "Why should colleges offer degrees? Isn't Sir Ron Dearing right when he says they should be restricted to offering sub-degree work?" Part of her motivation is personal. With two daughters at London FE colleges, she knows they are the first-choice institution for the majority of 16-year-olds remaining in education and training.

She is deeply committed also to the ideals in Helena Kennedy's recent report, which calls for the FEFC to widen access to minorities, to women returning from having a family, to parents wanting education support in the home, to second-chance adult students, to the redundant and to the (almost forgotten) mass who want education for its own sake. There should also be natural ladders on to HE. "Isn't that enough?" she asks in her initial purview of the sector.

In advance of the select committee's trawl for evidence this week, Ms Hodge has returned to the pre-incorporation days of five years ago and raced forward again to see events unfolding.

It was with this sort of thorough grounding that Ms Hodge used to make mincemeat of the Tory government and its nursery voucher proposals.

Teacher supply agencies were another issue on which she marshalled powerful arguments in favour of government regulation to prevent cuts in pay and conditions of service.

In a 10-minute Bill, she called for a statutory framework to vet agencies before registration, including checks on staff and agencies being open to inspection.

Her Bill ran out of parliamentary time, to the relief of the Tories, but not before she had exposed the fact that up to one-in-three London schools using agency staff had experienced problems with the placements and that anyone could set themselves up as an agency without vetting.

Her committee will be more than interested in the activities of agencies in FE given the continued high levels of discontent over pay and conditions expressed by many staff and their unions.

Ms Hodge became MP for Barking in 1994 after the death of Jo Richardson. A former leader of Islington Council, she became Labour's opposition specialist on under-fives education. Her inquiry into FE, she insists, is aimed at the single goal of a fair and equitable system for all, staff and students.

Her early remarks in the press caused some consternation in the sector, particularly those about colleges competing on a broad front with schools, training colleges and universities. Some took this as signalling a desire to return to some sort of local authority-style control, if not an Inner London Education Authority But the prospects for this are very remote, despite the plans for a mayor for London.

In a row over parental choice of schools earlier this year, she told the Association of London Government: "We wouldn't go back to the ILEA. It had some strengths, but it also had some weaknesses. It was far too removed from what was happening day to day in schools to intervene early and effectively enough to ensure disasters did not occur."

Ms Hodge is deeply distrustful of big bureaucracies. But she does want more sensible planning. She is New Labour through and through in believing that the pendulum has swung too far in favour of the market-place.

Crucial questions her committee want answered include: "Are there too many colleges? Can cash available be more effectively used by cutting competition? Is there an argument for closures or mergers? A realistic regional balance between competition and co-operation among all providers in the FE field is likely to be her solution.

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Ian Nash

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