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The puzzle of Foster

Dr Foster went to Gloucester

In a shower of rain

He stepped in a puddle

Right up to his middle

And never went there again

if only! I found the positive reception to Sir Andrew Foster's report on the further education sector puzzling. It declared that FE had failed to present itself effectively. Truism of truisms, it had made less impact on the public retina or government policy than either schools or higher education. Redefining the mission, simplifying the role and message would lead to better understanding, with less risk of embarrassing failure. But reducing our purposes to skills and employability required some surgical omissions. Sixth form colleges were the first to be let off, because they had a "distinctive ethos".

Tertiary colleges like mine, whose community mission is wider than most, were relegated to Appendix 1 and there was conveniently little reference to personal and community education which government had undertaken to safeguard.

The upshot is that the Sixth Form College Forum sees little point in joining a sector-wide campaign to move forward towards self-regulation. Sixth form colleges now give every indication of wanting to break away.

Meanwhile the big college leaders, differently empowered by Foster, have made it clear they do not need a sector-wide body to represent them and are willing to show leadership from the high ground of skills and employability. Except 157 Group colleges are about much more than Foster. They could end up without an army.

Gordon Brown's departmental split hammers home the Foster message, enforced by Leitch sixth form colleges aren't really part of the skills agenda, so they can be mothered by local authorities while general FE belongs to skills and will take its paternal beatings from employers. Whoever dares to take a comprehensive view of their community's wider needs is a sissy. So tertiary colleges, at the time of writing, don't even have a godmother.

The omens are not good for the FE sector. At a time when the Association of Colleges is losing its CEO and undertaking its first major review (again provoked largely by Foster), there are question marks over its future, too.

The rot set in in about 2002. The first string of OfstedHMI inspection results in that cycle were uniformly poor, largely in broad-based general colleges. The word got about that colleges were overreaching themselves.

"Concentrate on what you're good at!" This was readily translated into: "Excellence requires specialisation." Ministers' resolve to peg back the college mission was both the background and the mainspring of the Foster enquiry. It duly came to the right conclusion.

A principal was recently explaining to a government minister the activities in which the (tertiary) college excelled A-level pass rates, modern apprenticeship completions, school-college partnerships, motor-vehicle innovation awards etc. "I don't believe you can excel in all those things," he said. "We do," replied the principal. "It's not possible!" insisted the minister as he opened the college's third new building in four years.

Surely, enough general FE and tertiary colleges have by now demonstrated that comprehensive and rigorous management processes can raise standards across the board to nail this lie?

Where do we go from here if the centre will not hold? An obvious answer is to regroup on the diminishing middle ground: "we serve our communities foremost".

Farewell the tertiary college. Long live the community college. Yeats also said: "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity," but we'll leave that for another day.

Nigel Robbins OBE





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