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Riding the changing winds in comfort

If "Christ is the answer", as the billboard outside the church that I pass every day on the way to work informs me, what is the question? Now, at last, I have realised that it obviously is: "What do you say when you are handed the first flash of the Individual Student Record print-out?"

Astonishment runs into shock if the print-out shows that you are on course to achieve your funding targets. A triumph for planning? Or not. It's more likely to be a happy coincidence of essentially random gains and losses within the overall target which has brought about this apparent miracle, further evidence that the best planning is done retrospectively. None the less, this is the time of the year when we in colleges are deep into forward planning and this year the experience is even more profound than usual: we have to look not one but three years ahead to prepare a wholly new strategic plan, on the orders of the Further Education Funding Council, who provide a helpful template of a planning model. Who would be so churlish as to remind the FEFC that their own strategic planning process failed to forecast the difficulties caused by the rapid growth of franchising and the consequent funding crisis?

Of course, it makes sense for colleges to try to anticipate events, and even to shape them, but let us not kid ourselves that the predictions of what thousands of volatile individuals will choose to do in our college over the next three years are anything more than semi-educated guesses. After all, most of them will not even have thought about college yet, and we won't know their names, still less have met them. You can look at trends, you can talk to careers teachers in schools, and you can even ask those who have already applied, but you would be daft to bet your budget on the accuracy of any resultant forecast. But that is exactly what we have to do.

From the FEFC point of view our strategic plan is a highly detailed single tender document - our bid to provide a complex service at an agreed price in a given time. The bulk of our budget depends upon getting the contract and delivering it according to the specification. The FEFC's interest is in the integrity and the verifiability of the information which we supply in our plans. It is not in the educational value or nature of the teachinglearning axis which is our core business. Our interests and those of the FEFC coincide only when it comes to the transfer of money.

That being the case, the amount of time and energy we spend on planning is not worth it unless there are other college benefits to be had. And, of course, there are. If you do it bottom-up and involve the whole college, you get an aggregated, collective view about where the college is heading, and not just a narrow management perspective. You can set your own priorities, carve milestones and erect signposts so that you can plot your progress, and, with the help of the governors, you can ensure that the community voice is in there somewhere. All that should give a sense of ownership, of shared creativity, which you can get from merely going round the FEFC obstacle course without falling over.

But building a plan is not like completing a static mosaic to which people contribute a tile or two; it is better thought of as one of those action murals which are added to continually, so that the design changes according to the developing and cumulative ideas of the many participants, and is never finished.

So, the purpose of planning is not to produce a plan for its own sake, but to express what at any given time is the corporate will of the institution. That expression is most persuasive when it is articulated as part of a process of permanent self-analysis and assessment. Organic colleges will assess themselves not as an annual ritual or in the panicky run-up to inspection but all the time as a part of the normal quality cycle. We assess students and their work all the time, so we should apply the same rigour to all our processes and procedures, asking ourselves the only question that really matters: What can we do to help students to learn better?

The trick, then, is to manage the mural so that it can be safely smuggled through the FEFC's planning hoops, because the plan must be the college's, not the council's. However, plans risk being wrecked by external forces, which the FEFC acknowledges by asking us to list what those forces might be, under the heading of Risk Assessment. Not all external forces are as malign as a government which welshes on its funding promises at a moment's notice. In fact, some, as yet unforeseen, changes could be beneficial, such as a new government putting money into policies for attracting the disenchanted, the unemployed and the overlooked back into education and training. Or a new government releasing capital funds to improve the building stock and assist in rationalisation. Or a new government creating more purposeful regional bodies with some planning agendas and powers of their own.

Even Suzanne Charlton finds it hard to predict which way the winds are going to blow more than a day or two in advance. We have to develop those skills which enable us to ride the changing winds in comfort, keeping a clear and sharply focused view of the terrain, and not to be swept away by them.

Albert Speer, grandiose planner to Nazi Germany, had the sense of perspective which you would expect from the trained architect that he was. Asked, after the war, what went wrong with his monumental plans, he said: "The money ran out and there was a change of government." Will that be our excuse, too?

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, Lancashire

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