Living in paradise is a state to which few of us aspire, especially if we work in further education. The lot of senior managers has not been a universally happy one recently and so imagine finding that none other than Chris Hughes, the head of the Further Education Development Agency, in a recent newsletter, describes the sector as an island of dreams.
Island of Dreams? You might ask? What could such a place be like? No circulars from the Further Education Funding Council, no local learning and skills councils on the horizon, no David Blunkett, no David Melville, no Baroness Blackstone, no Schedule 2, no average level of funding, no I well, nothing much in terms of all that bureaucracy. Surely, there is nowhere like this?
Anyway, you might ask, how could a college manage to deliver a quality curriculum without the sticks and carrots of the funding methodology, target-setting, benchmarking and ministerial pronouncements? In FE, we have become so conditioned to reacting to changes in government policy that we forget we once thought - albeit for a short time in 1992 and 1993 - that corporate status would set us free. Can there still be a place where the college decides for itself how to serve its community?
The island of dreams Chris Hughes describes is - and I keep pinching myself - my college in Jersey. It's called Highlands and is just like your college offering NVQs and GNVQs, tackling the inclusiveness agenda and working hard at widening participation. The difference is that the agenda we set out to achieve is the one we have set out for ourselves.
Just like any English college we are part of a system, in our case the States of Jersey Education Service, but the difference is that the thinking on FE issues comes mainly from our staff and governors. Of cours, we model ourselves largely on the United Kingdom. We asked Terry Melia, the former chief inspector at the FEFC, to inspect us 18 months ago. In fact, the governors asked him to become our college inspector. Our funding formula, which will soon be in place, looks to Wales, while ourgovernance arrangements are based on the Jersey law concepts of a body corporate, which has a meaning quite different for a college here.
One unique feature of Highlands College is its business school, which had more than 3,500 enrolments last academic year. A member of the Association of Business Schools, it offers a wide range of professional qualifications, including a Master in Business Administration in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University. The Jersey Business School offers its own set of qualifications in offshore finance and trust administration, utilising the expertise of senior financiers on the island as visiting lecturers. Because we are not hampered by distinctions between further education and higher education or whether programmes are Schedule 2, the college has responded to the needs of the community and become a real partner of Jersey business.
Running a college with little external dictate is a strange experience. The education department on the island is more a partner than a master. Developing strategy for the benefit of our learners rather than following funding council circulars is a liberating experience.
Of course, the Island of Dreams is not paradise, but when English FE is looking at a new bureaucratic level with local learning and skills councils, it is interesting to speculate with Chris Hughes whether there are other models, and whether policy-makers could have investigated one that was on the doorstep. It does not require layers of over-arching bureaucracy to deliver a quality learning experience.
Edward Sallis is principal and chief executive of Highlands College, Jersey