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Sector in crisis

From David Pardey

The situation at Stoke-on-Trent College (TES, December 6) where nearly 200 staff are apparently to be made redundant may be the consequence of specific decisions made by the college's senior management, but it should not blind us to the peculiar characteristics of the FE sector which actively encourage that sort of behaviour.

Systemic factors need to be recognised, such as the pressure for growth, which has meant that a college which doesn't achieve sustained improvement in its performance and reductions in its unit costs every year for five years will suffer severe financial penalties, a situation which few private-sector organisations could cope with.

The sustained (albeit incoherent) 15-year strategy by the Government to expand the role of schools in vocational education should also be considered. This has involved major structural changes in that sector (selection, city technology colleges and technical schools), investing in staff and curriculum development (especially the technical and vocational education initiative) and changing curriculum rules to enable schools to deliver vocational courses (Dearings I and II). It has involved the devocationalisation of the vocational curriculum with general national vocational qualifications so that non-specialist teachers and resources can deliver them.

In consequence general FE colleges are now in danger of losing a substantial share of the full-time market, a market which accounts for one-third of their students but probably more than two-thirds of their revenue. In 15 years colleges have seen their share of the full-time 19-year-old market shrink from 100 per cent to around 70 per cent, a reduction camouflaged by an increase in market size through higher age participation rates and the movement of the sixth-form colleges from the school to the FE sector. That market growth has now stabilised and with market share now in danger, colleges are facing a highly problematic future.

The adult and part-time market offers a much larger potential for growth, but three times as many part-time students bring in a fraction of the funding, and it is going to be very difficult for colleges to sustain their resource base by substituting mature students for 16 to 19-year-olds. It is one of the idiosyncrasies of FE funding that a college which recruits fewer students but encourages those it does recruit to switch from cheaper employment-related part-time courses into more expensive full-time courses with limited employment opportunities (say, for example, media studies) is rewarded by the funding mechanism, whereas movement in the reverse direction brings penalties.

It is indicative of the state that FE is in that it receives criticism from ministers who are the architects of the funding system which produces the very characteristics they criticise, and that the future of the system may lie in becoming like American community colleges providing two-year associate degrees, a future which may well be determined by the very man, Sir Ron Dearing, who has helped them to lose so much market share in the first place.

DAVID PARDEY The Old Chapel, West Horrington, Wells, Somerset.

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