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Red tape is strangling progress

Principals want to spend less time chasing white papers and more on nurturing relationships with employers

Ministers should not be too disappointed if the latest pronouncement about how further education colleges should get their act together gets a lukewarm reception.

Evidence is emerging that colleges' reluctance to embrace the outpourings of Whitehall is something which goes far beyond "initiative fatigue" and the ever-present frustration about red tape.

Principals speaking privately as part of a national research project are making it clear that, in their view, the funding regime in further education actually threatens to strangle some of the very things it is designed to achieve.

Colleges say that nurturing relationships with employers is precisely the kind of thing they would be doing more of if they could spend less time managing the administrative burden created by initiatives from ministers. The New Engineering Foundation, a charity supporting vocational training, recently held focus groups which looked at FE's relationship with business around the country.

Delegates included 25 principals and vice-principals, and the message which emerged was consistent.

They said the focus on qualifications and targets at Level 2 (GSCE- equivalent) and Level 3 (A-level equivalent) are hampering the work of colleges by focusing on "outputs" - achievement and completion rates - sometimes at the expense of real socio-economic impact in the communities colleges serve.

If this view is correct, it suggests bad tactics by ministers. With their enthusiasm for defending skills, they have got so many players in the penalty area that they've lost sight of the goal.

The latest manifestation of this was last week's innovation "white paper". In fact, the term has come to mean little, being far removed these days from its proper legislative meaning.

The paper promises some funding - estimated at "no more than a few million pounds" by one Whitehall insider - to promote innovative projects that bring businesses and colleges closer together.

Sa'ad Medhat, chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation, is sceptical about the benefits this will bring. His own view is that many colleges already possess the expertise and the experience needed.

What they lack is the time. Resources are also an issue - not necessarily the amount of income, but the extent to which existing funds are tied up with chasing Government targets which are too closely defined.

Mr Medhat said: "There were concerns that business and college connectivity was very patchy across the UK. Colleges are saying that themselves. One reason is that we have in this country a qualification- driven funding system. It is supposedly a system that takes account of the needs of business but there is a contradiction here.

"The system as it is at the moment acts as a hindrance because there is not enough flexibility to allow colleges to spend more time engaging with employers.

"If they do so, they are spending less time following Government targets, which means that they will lose funding.

"It came out that staff in colleges want to be more business-facing and want to learn the commercial skills which go with that. We need to invest in their development to make this possible.

"We have seen one initiative after another, as well as the reports from Foster, Leitch, Sainsbury and everything else. We need to take stock of all this so the sector really can go and innovate."

The paper is promoted by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) as an attempt to make the UK "the best place in the world to innovate".

The plans go far beyond education, and ministers will look at the possibility of ensuring pound;50 billion in public procurement is being given to the private sector by 2013.

Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, which receives its funding from Dius, said: "This presents a huge opportunity to address challenges through innovation, and for Government to be an exemplar of innovation across all departments, in turn stimulating innovation and research and development investment throughout the business world."

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Leading article, page 4.

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