Sector on a mission to find direction

Where will the latest round of government post-16 consultations leave cash-strapped colleges? Steve Hook reports

SO further education, in the words of Education Secretary Estelle Morris, is suffering from "drift and lack of mission". This will not be seen as the most startling insight among providers who, over the past decade, have had their collective inner-ear balance mechanism tested to the limit by one change of direction after another.

For colleges, this has meant the leap from local government into the world of business. With incorporation in 1993 came the frequently turbulent journey through the stormy weather of franchising, opportunistic expansion encouraged by funding policy and ring-fenced funding streams.

If there has been drift, it cannot be blamed entirely on the principals or their governors. It is the dead hand of Whitehall which has been setting the direction.

Many principals would say it is the perpetual and ever-changing crosswind of government intervention which has driven them off course.

Most recently, it has been private providers' turn to be buffeted. With individual learning accounts came a false market. Private providers signed up, they invested their money and they got their fingers burnt - along with thousands of learners.

With Ms Morris's discussion document, Success for All, launched this month, comes yet another opportunity for the sector to show how it can best meet the Government's objectives.

The problems she identifies, particularly with colleges, are old hat to those who work in them: too much casualisation, not enough career development and capital under-investment.

She says: "For this Parliament, the Government believes that it is essential to accelerate the pace of reform to raise standards in the learning and skills sector so that success is achievable for all learners, regardless of where they live or with which publicly-funded provider they are enrolled."

She wants to see a comprehensive "reform" of the sector to bring it to world-class level of and says national targets (see box right) must be met. Other benchmarks of success, worthy but hard to define, include giving adults and the disadvantaged "the help they need".

There is some relief that rumours of separating 16 to 19-year-olds from the rest of FE appear to have been put to rest, even if the idea was being discussed behind the scenes.

David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "There is a lot in there about the direction in which the Government wants to go but this is a discussion paper and we welcome that. If it turns into a bureaucratic ordering exercise then people are going to be resentful. I'm pleased they have recognised that there are no simple solutions."

The Government's aspirations, by and large, are those of the colleges. Which principal would disagree with "putting teaching and learning at the heart of what we do" - the department's latest buzzphrase?

But behind these words there is the view that the climate in which colleges operate has to change. Since incorporation, colleges have evolved into education supermarkets, satisfying every desire of the marketplace from 16-19 through to workplace learning and adult returners. They serve as the learner's lifetime companion - from school to higher education and even prison.

In many cases they have proved a safe pair of hands for types of provision, such as individual learning accounts, which other providers have brought into disrepute.

Ms Morris believes it is time to sort the Waitroses from the Kwik Saves, and maybe there should be room for a few specialist shops in the high street. In her words: "We want colleges and other providers to concentrate on what they do best. This will mean taking hard decisions about whether it is right to continue with everything that they do now."

She sees the Office for Standards in Education as the main arbiter of quality and the Learning and Skills Council as the prime fixer. There will be the new 30-strong, post-16 standards unit at the Department for Education and Skills to keep-up the momentum for improvements in learning and teaching methods - similar to the schools standards unit.

The all-purpose general FE college will survive but not every area will necessarily rely on this system if smaller, specialist units are more effective.

Some principals suspect that this increasing emphasis on specialisation is driven more by the needs of local employers than the strengths of colleges. Some colleges have seen their best departments turned down for Centre of Vocational Excellence status, only to have bids accepted for departments which are of a lower standard but more closely tailored to the local job market.

Certainly, the trend towards specialisation is not unique to colleges. In her speech to the Social Market Foundation this week, Ms Morris made it clear that the days of the "one size fits all" comprehensive school are numbered.

So the evolution of colleges specialising in art, design, agriculture and horticulture into general FE institutions has come full circle as specialism returns centre-stage. If this looks like the re-invention of the wheel, there is more to come.

The role of the LSC is, perhaps, the most significant change of all. The over-arching stewardship of local authorities, which controlled colleges before incorporation, is back under the guise of the LSC.

It is local LSCs, not individual colleges, which are going to be responsible for ensuring breadth. Incorporation, a Conservative invention, will continue to exist as a matter of legal fact. But the free-market thinking which brought it about has been replaced by a new era of centralism.

Observers comment that, until the Government addresses levels of pay there will be little improvement. The document mentions the teaching pay initiative. It even mentions "golden hellos" to alleviate local recruitment problems but keeps clear of lecturers' demands for more money across the board for the work they are already doing, which they claim leaves them impoverished compared with schoolteachers.

Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, says the sector, already suffering from cash starvation, is now suffering from initiative fatigue.

The Government has at least achieved one thing - getting college administrators and lecturers to agree on what they think is the real problem in the sector. "If there's not enough money there then nothing's going to change," said Mr Pendle.

The college lecturers' union NATFHE draws the same conclusion and is likely to repeat its recent strike action for closure of what it says is a 12 per cent pay gap with schoolteachers. The 14 to 19 initiative, in particular, is likely to be the target of future industrial action.

General secretary Paul Mackney said: "NATFHE is always prepared to engage in discussion to improve the quality of further education on offer to millions of adults and students. But if there has been any slip in standards, the blame has to be laid at the door of chronic underfunding of the sector."

GOVERNMENT GOALS

"Meeting needs, improving choice."

There is no single blueprint but each of the 47 LSCs should develop their own strategy, relevant to geography and employers' needs.

* "Putting teaching and learning at the heart of what we do."

A programme of professional development and training will include support staff and lecturers, with workplace supervision.

* "Developing the teachers and leaders of the future."

The national leadership college is scheduled to open in 2003 and will include training for all managers.

* "Developing a framework for quality and success."

Improved accountability is needed so that weaknesses are identified earlier, with the LSC and OFSTED playing a central role.

FUTURE PLANNING

The Learning and Skills Council has set these targets for 2004:

* 80 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds in structured learning;

* 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to achieve level 2 (GCSE equivalent);

* 55 per cent of 19-year-olds to achieve level 3;

* 52 per cent of adults to achieve level 3;

* To raise literacy and numeracy skills of 750,000 adults.

Previous targets which have not been reached include getting 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to level 2. The figure is now 75 per cent.

Mr Blair promised ministers would resign if targets were missed - although none of the ministers who have passed through the rapidly revolving door of the Department for Education and Skills has specifically departed for this reason.

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