The Government is often criticised for too many initiatives and too little strategy for the coherent development of post-compulsory education. But at a Learning and Skills Development Agency event on March 7, minister Margaret Hodge clearly suggested the emergence of a strategic approach.
The Secretary of State will take this further at our summer conference next week, complete with pamphlet and consultation process. Speculation is running rife, with particular attention focused on the creation of specialist 16 to 19 institutions and their impact on general further education colleges.
This follows a period of anxiety about specialisation and a perceived threat to colleges' comprehensive missions. The only thing worse than a government without a strategy is one with a strategy.
Colleges need to acknowledge that there is an issue to be addressed. The 1990s was a period of strategic drift. The autonomy of incorporation, in its early pure form, drove colleges via a very simple proposition - shape your own destiny, just deliver growth.
Later attempts to provide a strategic steer through the funding methodology produced complexity and unpredictable outcomes.
Tempers are now getting frayed about the future shape and size of the college sector. Rows about funding and pay are getting in the way of the key question: "How do we secure the strategic development of the FE sector?"
How do we modernise delivery, raise standards and attract new learners? This is not the same as asking how we should plan the sector, with its emphasis on volumes and allocations. For the truth is that the question of supply side is not settled by the passing of the Learning and Skills Act alone. The Act has simply provided the framework for a more policy-driven approach.
The issue for us all is what next? Colleges cannot sustain a position of:
"Give us the money and leave us alone." On the other hand a great national asset like our FE colleges cannot, and should not, be driven to distraction by some form of giant electric prod that tries to keep them under control.
A historic opportunity now exists for a new settlement about strategic purpose. The learning and skills structural reforms are in place; a new set of spending plans for 2003-6 are being prepared and ministers are beginning to articulate their vision for FE with a commitment to consult. Such a settlement would recognise that:
* every college has a significant contribution to make at entry, level 1 and level 2;
* vocational provision at level 3 and above requires planning, creating a network of centres of excellence;
* some colleges have developed significant higher education provision, while some are significant providers of upper secondary education (16-19).
We need to move to a new typology of colleges which acknowledges access and opportunity as a common characteristic but which also encourages a sense of distinctive core business for particular colleges.
In this way we can usefully move the debate on from specialist colleges to those with specialisms. Two things might then happen.
First, the development of teaching and learning frameworks could be done in a more context specific way. Post-16 is diverse and particular pedagogic practices need to be developed for specific students, developing specific skills in specific settings. Think of construction students working on live building sites, or reaching new adult learners in neighbourhood settings.
Second, college leaders need to become better strategic thinkers and develop a direction for their colleges that maintains a broad emphasis on access and growth, but which establishes a more specialised mission within the area of technical and vocational provision at higher levels of achievement.
Principals have often complained that their strategic capability is severely limited by government and funding and planning agencies. But this volatile environment places an even greater premium on strategic thinking. Colleges will always need to seek out opportunities, to take commercial risks and to form strategic alliances and partnerships.
Principals will need to possess clear vision and direction to lead strategic change within their colleges that results in quality improvement, curriculum innovation and perhaps the introduction of performance-based reward systems. Where planning initiatives rest with the LSCs, more than ever colleges need a "reason to be".
As Will Hutton, author of The State We're In, has commented, visionary companies possess a sense of moral purpose. Colleges should flaunt their moral purpose as key contributors to the economic and social health of their community and use it to motivate and energise staff and learners.
There is a paradox at work in this debate. If colleges do not sign up to a strong national framework for strategic development, they risk losing their strategic role.
No one wants to see colleges as branches of learning and skills councils simply delivering a plan. In the end, employers and learners will be customers of colleges (and other providers), not of funding and planning bodies.
For colleges, a distinctive mission is the best way to secure strategic freedom within the learning and skills system.
Chris Hughes is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency