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Paper worth its weight in power and structure

There are few topics that unite everyone in education but dislike of bureaucracy is one of them. The anti-red tape campaign launched by The TES and the Association of Colleges caught a mood. The Learning and Skills Council established a taskforce in January. The taskforce plans to report by July and to make a difference from September.

The current unity against bureaucracy is striking. The taskforce may find it harder to maintain the same unity when it comes to recommendations. Simplification creates losers as well as winners. The support for simplification of the funding system waned when people discovered they lost out. The same will be true with the simpler Standards Fund.

One issue for the taskforce will be to define bureaucracy. It is more than paperwork. The dictionary says it is the exercise of power by officials. Power can be used for good or ill. One person's bureaucratic instruction is someone else's necessary control.

Imagine a vast organisation chart: there are people at the top - ministers, senior civil servants, Learning and Skills Council management - and there are people at the bottom - enrolment staff, part-time lecturers. If you're at the top, then it's likely you'll want some rules to prevent abuse. However, if you're underneath, bureaucracy and paperwork may be a concern.

People working in colleges generally blame the principal or senior management. Principals blame the LSC. The LSC blames the Department for Education and Skills. The DFES blames the Treasury.

The centralisation of power in the public sector has added to the bureaucratic load. One great idea in Whitehall can easily become one million pieces of paper in the classroom. If you don't believe me, look at key skills. Or education maintenance allowances.

The September timetable is tight but there is time for quick wins. Fewer funding streams will be one step forward. Better LSC communication would be another. But a really serious attempt to root out bureaucracy might require a challenge to some long-established conventions.

The first convention is the purchaser-provider split. This was introduced in the early 1990s when colleges were removed from local government control. Independence has brought many benefits. But you only have to look at the NHS to appreciate some of the costs. Where the LSC conducts its relationships with publicly-funded colleges at arm's length, the NHS executive works with health authorities and hospitals on common administration procedures.

The same form gets used in every hospital in the country in line with a national rulebook. Some support services, like payroll and training, are being organised on a regional level. It's easy to list the drawbacks of this sort of change but imagine the long-term cost savings. Money saved could be reinvested in front-line services. And a closer relationship between skills council and college might reduce the army of auditors and inspectors required to check performance and paperwork.

Another source of bureaucracy in colleges is the complicated clawback system. The simplification of the funding formula is a welcome step but the formula is part of a larger system of rewards and penalties.

Colleges get their budgets a few months before the start of the year. They employ lecturers and run courses to ensure they meet targets. There are no rewards for exceeding targets but heavy penalties for any shortfall. The penalties apply in the same year but it takes longer than that to reduce costs.

Colleges used to manage the risks of this system by running low-cost, low-quality franchises that could be switched on and off. Now that this has become more difficult, they generally run just below target.

The source of the problem is the system of in-year penalties. Colleges are under pressure each year to account for every last student. Small administrative failures result in lost money. The overall result is a culture of risk avoidance and defensive bureaucracy.

The taskforce aims to reduce LSC bureaucracy by 25 per cent. This would be a real victory but it should not induce complacency. There are many reasons why a conscientious teacher needs to keep records. A pile of paperwork is required to verify assessment. Health and safety risks need to be documented. Student circumstances need to be assessed to comply with equality legislation. Behind all these, there is a small but rising tide of litigation relating to education practice and negligence. Record-keeping minimises risks.

What the LSC takes away in bureaucracy, the law courts may put back.

Julian Gravatt is director of finance at the City Lit, London

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