National inquiry: lifesaver or dangerous diversion?

Two typical responses among many to the call for a Dearing-style review of the structure and funding of FE, published in The TES last week

John Akker, general secretary , NATFHE. A national inquiry should be one of the first tasks of the next Government.

The crisis over payment of cash for growth shows that planning and rationality have gone out of the window. Current problems highlight a lack of clear purpose for FE. Many reviews are under way: the Further Education Funding Council on funding; Kennedy on participation; Dearing on higher education. But there is a need to deal with more fundamental issues.

A new Government must get to grips with these problems through a comprehensive public inquiry into the role, governance, structure, curriculum and funding of FE, including pay and conditions. During this review, there should be consolidation, with FEFC funds for 1997-98 to prevent the position of colleges getting worse.

The depth of the crisis was revealed recently when the National Audit Office said the sector ended 1994-95 with an operating deficit of Pounds 101million, compared with Pounds 7m in 1993-94. This is estimated to rise to Pounds 122m in 1995-96.

In 1994, 70 per cent of colleges were defined as "robust". This fell to 47 per cent in 1996. The proportion of financially week colleges rose from 6 per cent to 19 per cent. Student numbers rose from 803,000 in 1992-93 to 1,097,000 in 1995-96 but spending per head fell 13 per cent.

Too little cash is coming into FE, which needs an extra Pounds 1.9 billion to restore spending levels.

Competition and free market values have been shown not to work. The complex nature of FE needs some planning and control. At the same time, as a public service responsive to local community need, vibrant local structures of democratic accountability are necessary.

It is clear that staff, too, must be accorded a much higher priority. The disturbing words of the retiring FEFC chief inspector, Terry Melia, in his final report, still ring true. Too many of the changes to staffing structures have not been in the best interests of students. The scale of job loss - 10,000 since incorporation - is staggering to the outside observer. That the low morale of staff boils over into serious anger should come as no surprise.

There is an urgent need to restore rationality to FE industrial relations. We need proper safeguards against workloads which are currently leading to sharp increases in levels of stress and ill-health. We need competitive pay rates which recruit and retain the best teachers to FE. We need full-time rights for part-time workers and an end to the damaging effects of casualisation.

Access to learning is vital for the benefit of the individual and society. We want to see expanded opportunities and increased expectations. Curricula must be streamlined and qualifications should recognise achievements. Finally, we need boards of governors which represent everyone who has an interest in the college - staff, students, local communities, education authorities and employers.

Ken Ruddiman, principal, Sheffield College So, the FE sector needs a Dearing review? I think not. Most of the colleagues I speak to know exactly what they are doing and where they would like to see improvement. If, on the other hand, the public needs such a review to understand our service then clearly it ought to have our support.

Inevitably, it will be seen by politicians as an excuse to further delay issues which need urgent attention. These include: * A level playing field for funding post-16 work in schools and colleges up to the second year of a degree course; * completion of the value-added research on outcomes and its application to the post-16 sectors; * a common framework to assess quality standards for all providers in education and training, publishing regular inspection reports and if necessary league tables; * clear articulation of who pays for training - the individual, employer or state - for all, in or out of work; * published costings of implementing the likes of the Tomlinson report on learning difficulties and Kennedy on widening participation; * a clear cash commitment to growth; * a sensible period of notice before all spending and policy changes.

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