All-action agenda set for quango

28th November 1997 at 00:00
The quango responsible for research and staff training in colleges has a bright future at the heart of further education, its chairman said this week.

Terry Melia, the former chief inspector of colleges, said the Further Education Development Agency would be at the centre of plans to expand and improve Britain's colleges.

He said FEDA had been given a "super agenda for action" by Education Secretary David Blunkett, and work would start now.

Dr Melia said: "This will require a lot of innovative work by us. but with all these able people we have the opportunity to drive the sector forward."

Last week, FEDA announced plans to close the former FE staff college near Bristol to create a new headquarters in London.

Dr Melia said the move would cost some jobs, but was essential to improve the agency's work.

He said: "Accommodation thing is a big issue for us. The first thing is to get as many staff as we can in one building. You get most of your ideas by passing people in the corridor, not in formal meetings."

He said job losses were possible, but said managers would work to minimise any redundancies. The agency's sites outside Bristol would be sold as going concerns, Dr Melia said.

He insisted that the move could be accomplished within FEDA's current budgets, and rejected suggestions that the agency would be going "cap in hand" to the Further Education Funding Council. Internal estimates of a Pounds 2 million-plus shortfall because of the plans were a "worst-case scenario", he said.

Dr Melia was speaking after the publication of the first inspection report into the agency.

Inspectors criticised the agency's multi-site operation. The report said: "The dispersed nature of FEDA's activities, with many functions located as they were before the establishment of the new agency, has hindered efficient resource management and the formation of a new corporate ethos . . . It is not yet clear whether all sites are essential to the agency's efficient operation."

The report also criticises the lack of information available to managers, and the lack of any overall plan to co-ordinate its activities. "It is not clear how the separate programme area priorities relate one to another or whether they are consistent. FEDA has no overall operating plan setting out the ways in which it will meet its strategic objectives. The individual plans produced by each area vary considerably in quality and rigour."

But inspectors praised the agency's self-assessment report as "robust and accurate".

And they pointed to the "extensive range of services and expertise which it offers the sector".

But inspectors chose not to award grades for FEDA's work - all colleges are graded from one to five for each aspect of their operation.

Dr Melia said he regretted that FEDA had not been subjected to the same system of grades, but said that grades would have further bolstered the agency's position.

He said many criticisms in the report had already been addressed, although he acknowledged that bringing together the old FE unit and the former staff college had presented problems in the agency's early years.

"I think FEDA is a very dynamic organisation," he said. "The research is of a very high calibre and some of the bad press we get from some people in colleges is hard to understand."

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