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Out of the LEA ambit and into the future;FE Focus

The last Government's decision to remove colleges from the ambit of local education authorities was an important step in building the sector.

Incorporation was a grant-maintained system for FE colleges. It is ironic that some who argue that GM schools had an unfair advantage over the LEA sector are the same who say incorporation represents a threat to the role of colleges.

The argument for incorporation is the same as for GM schools. Institutions are better run if decisions about their shape are made by management running them. Principals and governors should have better links with employers and more understanding of school-leavers' needs than managers outside.

Concern has been expressed about the impact of incorporation on relationships between colleges and surrounding schools. It is argued that competition undermines co-operation between institutions in meeting student needs. If that is true, it is more a comment on local relationships than on the benefits of independent institutions.

Students always had a choice between sixth forms and colleges, and judgments about the strength of individual institutions were coloured by the choices students made. Making schools and colleges more directly accountable should ensure they are closely attuned to the needs of individual students.

Many lecturers express concern about the bureaucratic process of decision-making which they feel has been introduced into FE following incorporation. This trend seems to arise from two sources; the first is under the direct control of colleges themselves, the second reflects on the working practices of the FEFC.

Within colleges, the commitment to strengthened local management has undoubtedly led to established practice being challenged. No one who cares about the quality of the service delivered by colleges should dissent from that process.

Inevitably, new management processes have sometimes been unnecessarily irksome. College managers must deliver their objectives in a way that motivates staff and engages their enthusiasm, not appearing to belittle their efforts.

Localised management should lead to staff being more involved in decisions, and colleges being more responsive to their concerns.

Similar challenges face the FEFC, which has made progress in establishing quality standards. It does, however, face the same need as local managements to ensure that its desirable objectives are not undermined by emphasising process unduly. Management systems must focus on the essential and avoid the incidental.

Stephen Dorrell is the shadow education secretary

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