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Networks define the marketplace

Kathryn Riley analyses the effects of growing competition for students on the relationships between institutions.

Over recent years, we have seen a shift from a system of local government in which the local authority took the major education decisions to one in which power and responsibilities are now shared by a range of agencies and institutions. One consequence has been that decision-making has now become more diffuse and those involved in an area such as post-16 have come to rely more heavily on participation in certain important networks to achieve their goals.

Recently, as part of an Economic and Social Research Council project, I studied how all the agencies and organisations with an interest in post-16 education link with each other. I interviewed governors and senior staff from schools and colleges; officers and members from the local authority; staff from the local training and enterprise council; the Government office for London and the Further Education Funding Council as well as a range of other interested "players". The issues which have arisen have some important implications for other areas of education.

Whilst many of those I interviewed suggested that the new system of local governance has served to remove organisational blinkers and create new alliances, the changes have created costs, as well as benefits.

Networks, of course, are not new to education and much innovation and development has depended for its success on such formal and informal structures. What is new is the importance of networks as part of the bidding process for major resources, and as a strategy for creating integration and coherence in a fragmented system.

The range of organisations and institutions with an involvement in post-16 provision is now considerable. For local governance to work, those organisations must work together, both one organisation with another, and through different networks. I discovered that while there are now more networks across organisations - and the scope of what they are trying to achieve has increased - participation is largely limited to those at the top of their organisations.

Although there were some informal networks which worked well, particularly when participants felt that they were solving common problems, for middle managers in education or staff in schools and colleges, the informal networks of the past which helped shape good practice are fast disappearing. This has resulted from the new market framework which puts schools in competition with each other and with colleges. It was described by one senior officer in the following terms: "Schools are increasingly atomising rather than working together. Headteachers treat each other with suspicion because of the competition between schools. There are fewer informal networks and no informal networks which attempt to disseminate good practice. There is little informal professional collaboration.

"At one time there would have been a sense that we are in a tough job together. That's gone. League tables reflect the nature of the problem. It has become a zero-sum game. If your school is doing better then you don't need to collaborate. If it is doing worse, then other schools don't want to collaborate with you. Schools don't collaborate because there is no prospect of new markets. The whole further education scene adds to the complexities."

Networks are used for a variety of purposes but have increasingly become resource-focused. The bidding process for the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) is an obvious example. It is such a complex and fast-moving enterprise that only a few senior officers understand the rules.

This brings me to my second point, accountability. The impact of a process such as the SRB has been that many local politicians and local people have been excluded and decisions are increasingly being made by central government representatives removed from those affected by them.

A third issue is that promoting, developing and participating in networks has now become a major task for senior officers - an inherent part of their job. It takes time and commitment away from other educational activities when, as one sanguine headteacher described it, "there is so much else to do".

Yet commitment to participating in networks at a local level is unlikely to resolve crucial points of conflict in the system, such as the market competition for 16-year-olds which now exists, or to reduce the almost inevitable tensions between organisations.

For those individuals who are involved in networks, the outcomes can be significant for their organisation, not least in terms of resources. This raises the question of whether resources should be distributed on the basis of the capacity of individuals to access a network or on their skill in drawing up a bid which is acceptable to the local TEC or Government Office? There is a danger in the system driven by competition that "need" may be overlooked.

So is there a better way of distributing resources and organising post-16? The question of resources was brought into sharp relief in the area of my study, as the local TEC (South-East London), went into liquidation, creating financial problems for all involved, including schools and college.

But it also provoked a fundamental breakdown in trust and belief in the capacity of a fragmented market-orientated system to manage the delivery of services in an equitable manner, despite the commitment of those trying to make the system work.

Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the Centre for Educational Management, Roehampton Institute.

The education network study is part of the ESRC Local Governance Programme by the late Professor Kieron Walsh and Dr Vivien Lowndes (Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham University), Professor Kathryn Riley (Roehampton Institute) and Jackie Woollam (Birmingham City Council)

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