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Reformers must all pull together

INCORPORATION, new funding regimes and franchising have all played their part in college life in the past 10 years. They have been partly responsible for transforming further education colleges from being good neighbours into rampant rivals.

Collaboration, when it takes place, is superficial, and real partnerships are few and far between. The drive for growth money and the achievement of targets have caused many colleges to seek out and offer programmes in locations that would never have been dreamt of prior to incorporation.

Although very little of what has been created in the name of growth or franchising is devoid of justification, it has still brought us to a situation in which the total portfolio on offer in FE colleges is badly mis-shapen.

To correct this misshapen offer we have been invited to participate in a new vision for the sector. Success for All sets out the case for reform of FE and at the epicentre of the plans are the Strategic Area Reviews (Stars).

I have now managed to read Circular 0306 issued by the Learning and Skills Council in March. If you haven't read it yet, I suggest you do. In particular, it is essential reading for all lay college board members. It is "for information" but if the sector is to see this reform through within the timescales laid out in the circular, then I suggest to the LSC that it should be re-labelled "Read, learn and inwardly digest." Every college and every board will need to be involved in their respective strategic area review and they will need to understand and embrace Circular 0306.

In particular, I would draw attention to the sections that deal with "core values" and "core principles" of partnership. Successful change is achieved only when all parties affected by the changes are involved in the development of options and implementation.

However, I am sceptical about the prospect of all the college principals and boards in a region sitting down and reaching agreement on what is best for the learner and how best to deliver.

So who will take ultimate responsibility for making the decisions and for driving the plans through to delivery? Of course, it can only be the local LSC, which will have to mastermind the strategic area review in its region.

Circular 0306 says the local LSC will "lead Stars and will ensure that the process is effectively managed, stakeholders are engaged and that the timetable is met and outputs are achieved".

Yet what authority does it have? Is it going to come knocking on the door of my college and tell me that having considered all the facts, and the opinions of my competitors (sorry, neighbouring colleges) that we must stop delivering courses in construction next year and withdraw from the outreach centre four miles away, or perhaps even merge with the college seven miles distant? You can imagine the reaction of the board to that menu of reform.

Of course, we would be happy if such a message were to be delivered to a college nearby that was a bit of a thorn in our side. That would be fine and would get our total support. But I doubt that the LSC could exert such direct authority over any college; nor indeed would it want to see the plans delivered in such an autocratic way. So just how are we all going to get this sorted within a reasonable timescale and in a workable manner?

The answer is in Circular 0306 and the first of the core principles:

"Know, trust and value each other." They are easy words to utter but difficult to live by, given the potential outcomes and their impact on our institutions and people. But if this is to be true reform and not just tinkering, some difficult decisions will have to be taken and supported by college boards.

There will be a big temptation to rush into the process of restructuring and moving provision from one provider to another. I would prefer to see a short period at the beginning devoted to getting the local LSC and the providers sitting around the table to discuss how they will work together and the values that will underpin the process.

This will provide the opportunity to create the required climate of collaboration and trust between all the parties that will pave the way for the best possible outcomes for each region. Failure to do this will make the LSC task much harder and raise the prospect of false starts and prolonged negotiation.

David Kissman is chair of governors at Broxtowe College, Nottingham

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