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Open letter to Bill Rammell

I write on behalf of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college to welcome the further education white paper, and to make a suggestion which we believe will significantly help us all achieve the aims which we share.

We are pleased that the Government has devoted a white paper to FE and glad to see your commitment to the important work which colleges do. We also find a good deal to welcome in the detail of the white paper.

We have two worries, which lie in our experience of how difficult it is to translate appealing rhetoric into practical reality, and in our belief that colleges of further education also have a duty to serve their localities, a role which is under-played in the white paper.

We therefore suggest that government should impose a statutory obligation on all colleges to consult their local authorities about their strategic plans.

Our thinking is this: First, England is a complex country, just small enough for national policy-makers to feel able to design single national policies in the hope that they will meet all sets of circumstances. They never do, of course, and public servants at local level spend much time and effort trying to make them fit local circumstances as best they can.

In that local interpretation, good intentions often get lost. Add to this the stance of the Learning and Skills Council, which now carries as a badge of honour its commitment to a focused approach, and we fear that some of the subtleties of the White Paper - ie your good intentions - will get lost when translated into operational objectives.

A compulsory dialogue at local level about how to translate national priorities into workable local solutions is more likely to deliver better results for the Government and for colleges' local communities than anything which depends solely on the top-down interpretation of the LSC.

Second, as minister responsible for FE, you have a legitimate expectation that this college will do its bit towards meeting your ambitions for the national economy. We are doing so, and we will continue to do so, but this college is not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Her Majesty's Government. We also have obligations to our local communities, which are not all encompassed by what the LSC pays us to do.

We have the scope, which the White Paper both recognises and encourages us to exploit further, to earn more of our keep ourselves, and to do things which central Government, through the LSC, is unable or unwilling to pay for.

We will always, of course, encourage you to put more money into FE, but we welcome the Government's clear signal that you are not pretending that central resources alone will do everything. What we need is a way forward which strikes a better balance between our national and local roles.

Through the White Paper, the Government has made clear its ambitions for FE. There is no equivalent mechanism by which local communities can make their wishes clear. Our proposal ensures that there will be a continuing conversation between colleges and their local authorities about what needs to be done locally, about how far LSC resources will suffice, and about what alternative plans might be put in place for the rest.

That conversation serves your purpose well, because it reinforces your message that government cannot and will not pay for everything. It is worth making local consultation compulsory, rather than simply part of routine exhortation to us all to follow good practice, because compulsion enshrines the truth that colleges face both ways, nationally and locally.

Colleges should therefore never assume that government will pay for everything. In our own case, we have a clear strategy both to maximise our LSC income, and to reduce our dependence on it, including through commercial contracts with employers using our new team of employer account managers.

Iain Mackinnon

Chair, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college

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