Many may welcome much in Agenda for Change. However, lessons from other areas of education suggest the recent publication also represents an extension of competitiveness in post-16 provision.
The reduction in bureaucracy and the greater clarity in funding, which will assist with budgeting, seem the obvious developments to welcome. However, if the agenda is successfully implemented, then greater investment in FE colleges will prove equally valuable and, indeed, the benefits will be less dubious.
This investment follows from the state's greater willingness to support capital expenditure in order to improve recruitment and retention. Further income will come from employers when, with the support of developments within Agenda for Change, they are more convinced about the FE product.
Since only 15 per cent of employers currently look to FE to satisfy their training and skill requirements, this is clearly a desirable goal.
Not unexpectedly, these potential advantages come with strings attached.
The bog standard college is to go the same way as the bog standard comprehensive school. The development of centres of vocational excellence has started this process. Agenda for Change takes it further by enhancing competition between colleges and indeed between colleges and independent training providers. This is not automatically undesirable. What are the implications?
Well, just as specialist schools are still required to teach the national curriculum and attend to non-specialist areas, so Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) colleges will both choose and need to continue with provision outside their specialist area. In practice, then, choice for educational institutions is limited. It would be a very bold headteacher who opted to focus on the learning needs of the local community regardless of results. Only certain results can be quantified for the purpose of league tables.
Similarly, Agenda for Change mentions that FE promotes social justice. But the tenor of the document is very much providing what business needs; other missions, although permitted, are covered in a single paragraph.
Colleges are expected to be interested in gaining the quality mark for working closely with employers. The intention is to "increasingly make employers aware of the benefits of working with these quality-marked colleges - and other providers - so funding flows accordingly in line with employer choice."
Colleges can anticipate at least 90 per cent of their funding deriving from core funding. However, colleges will have greater access to income from employers and commissioned funding if they have demonstrated a capacity to work with employers to the extent that they gain the quality mark. This commissioned funding becomes a lever by which the state can encourage particular developments.
This is unlikely to increase institutional autonomy. Its major purpose, though, is to strengthen competition. This competition will have added breadth, as it is likely to embrace training providers that may already have links with local businesses and which do not have the responsibility for education in the round that FE colleges have.
The very removal of targets - however welcome in terms of reducing bureaucratic demands - is also a basis from which a tighter regime of competition can be launched. In the university sector, the removal of recruitment targets (which previously resulted in financial penalties for over-recruitment just as they did for under-recruitment) has allowed more prestigious institutions to expand at the expense of those who find recruitment more difficult.
Agenda for Change suggests that colleges with CoVE status are better placed to receive the quality mark, partly because their enhanced status has already attracted some employers. If this occurs, then the end of bog standard colleges results in a hierarchy. Further, over a short period of time, that hierarchy will become, largely, fixed, as more status and more funding provide a virtuous circle for some colleges at the expense of others.
This resembles the competition between universities for research funding.
Long-established universities, with an established culture that prioritises research and with staff who have been active in research for a number of years, receive far more funding than those in the former polytechnic sector.
The result is, ultimately, to reinforce pre-existing status. The idea that excellence in provision results in differential access to additional resources has already been practiced by the Teacher Training Agency. The consequence was that those colleges that had scored highly at inspection were rewarded with additional student places; colleges that had scored badly, in some instances, had their recruitment targets reduced. It seems this will be applied to FE:preferred, quality marked colleges will receive more commissioned funding than their less illustrious competitors.
This results from a combination of inspection and competition. While Agenda for Change marks a welcome reduction in bureaucracy, there is also a change in inspection: those applying for the quality mark will be subject to "robust but streamlined external assessment, including the use of 'mystery shoppers'." So, excessive bureaucracy is replaced by continual surveillance.
Graham Fowler is a further education researcher, writer and consultant