'Strangled by red tape and excess scrutiny'

FE is suffering from too much high-level interference, NATFHE's leader told conference delegates. Steve Hook reports

LECTURERS' union leader Paul Mackney says the creation of the Learning and Skills Council has left colleges too mired in bureaucracy to perform effectively.

The general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education chose its annual conference this week in Torquay to call for a root-and-branch shake-up of FE.

He said colleges have been strangled by red tape and excessive scrutiny, and suggested that what he called the"incorporation experiment", the taking of colleges out of local authority control in 1993, should give way to a democratically accountable system.

"Tony Blair promised in 1997 to dismantle the quango state. With the pound;7 billion Learning and Skills Council, we've been subjected to the biggest quango in history.

"The whole massive edifice gets in the way of effective delivery. Each level has a symbiotic relationship with its proximate neighbour. It consists of thousands of 'viewers' generating little but irritating the hell out of the 'doers' at the point of learning.

"It is resourced from the sweat of college staff who are also subjected to a regime of inspection and blame, while the real responsibility for failure is lost in an almost impenetrable bureaucratic labyrinth. As one member put it recently: 'Why don't they just get out of the way and let me get on with the job?' " He said each college has more managers than the entire FE department of a typical local education authority had before incorporation. He went on to say that governing bodies operate as "self-perpetuating oligarchies" and the LSC consists of 47 "business-dominated cliques".

He criticised ministers for bringing in changes without consulting the union, and claimed this had led to a catalogue of disasters in the past.

He claimed the Department for Education and Skills had not learned the lesson of individual learning accounts, which were closed amid fraud allegations and poor-quality provision.

"If you want to know what will work, ask the practitioners," he said."We warned about franchising. Franchising imploded in 1997. We warned about individual learning accounts. Sure enough, a pound;238 million pile of pyramid selling collapsed last autumn. My next prediction? Watch the new Government-funded private centres of vocational excellence."

He called on the Government to increase taxation to bring extra funding to the sector. He said: "The Government could revive the redistribute principle for education by raising the 40 per cent tax rate, which was 60 per cent even in the late 1980s, controlling offshore tax evasion, even if it affects some party donors, and prioritising education over defence."

Tina Downes, the union's president, said the creation of the LSC had put the needs of business too high up the agenda.

"The Government has shown itself to be the friend of business rather than workers," she told delegates."It is worth noting that the new bodies which distribute FE funding, the LSCs, are bursting with business representatives, but only have one trade union rep each and are unwilling to take NATFHE reps, as they represent a vested interest. Treating education as any other commodity is going too far.

"Ultimately, the Government sees more votes in big business and its interests in the global market than in further education. The employers want to deliver post-school education without disturbing the Government, as cheaply as possible. They are not on the same side as us."

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