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Successful 'family life' will mean adjustments

In April 2010, sixth form colleges return to the local authority "family", so the question in college principals' minds is what sort of a family this will be? Ramsay Street is, after all, half a world away from Albert Square.

Principals will not be alone in casting a diffident eye on the prospect. Local authority staff will wonder whether this homecoming will be like the Kate Bush version of events, an elfin Cathy tapping at the window, or Wuthering Heights as originally written, with the family at one another's and their neighbours' throats.

It is, above all, in the interests of young people that the homecoming should be a happy one. A mission for their wellbeing is the family trait which education providers all have in common, so it should be possible.

But what is "home"? Despite decades of top-down government with an implicit transactional management model, a very different approach has been signalled. Everything from "self-regulation" through the machinery of government (MoG) changes white paper to the Cabinet Office's "Excellence and Fairness" paper indicates the Government wants greater local autonomy.

Understanding this was the first step we took towards meeting the Government's challenge. It has meant moving from the question the MoG white paper left us with - "how are they going to make this work?" - to the one we need to address: "how are we going to make this work?"

Brighton and Hove's 14-19 partnership board has proved valuable over the past three years as a forum for all the city's secondary, special school and college heads, providers of ancillary services, the Children and Young People's Trust (CYPT) and the Learning and Skills Council. We were successful in jointly launching diploma courses this academic year, among other achievements.

But we believe successful commissioning from next April will depend on a more robust form of partnership - what we call "partnership for success".

What will be different about this form of working? First, we agree it can't make sense for strategic planning authorities to plan in the absence of providers. Those accountable for how things ought to be need to talk with those accountable for how things are. So there must be places at the table for school and college heads when the CYPT considers the implications of commissioning.

The quid pro quo is that there can't be any bickering about what is on the menu. If providers want the chance to plan commissioning, they must be able to stomach unpalatable topics. Quality, information, advice and guidance, resourcing - all matter for the provision that our young people deserve, and must be addressed jointly by us all.

To make these discussions possible, we have developed some conventions. We seek win-win solutions; we accept providers have needs as well as learners; we commit to honest communication and respect confidentiality. We also know we need to make changes to the machinery of the partnership board and its sub-groups. For the first time in our learning partnership's 10-year history, we will find a way to engage governors in our work.

I have argued for the benefits of transformational leadership as a model for central government, and that gauntlet has been thrown down. Can local partnerships across the country make it work?

In Brighton and Hove, we believe partnership for success is the best way to provide for our young people. Not only can we all work together as a family, but we also know how the best families work.

Christopher Thomson, Principal of Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College.

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