Art of planning FE demands the genius of Picasso

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Time spent in planning is never wasted. This is a Japanese view and it informed their whole approach to World War II, which they lost, of course.

It was a view I shared until we attempted to build an extension to the college. We planned it very carefully; we involved experts; we didn't move without at least three sets of plans for each stage; we got in more experts to check on the experts and our critical path analysis-planning could be the basis for a best-selling computer game.

The builders arrived, took our plans, dug their trenches, laid their foundations and erected a huge steel framework for the five-storey building: 18 inches too far to the left!

It was, for the builders, the experts and the planners, a hugely costly error. For college staff it was a source of great merriment and their view of how effectively college senior managers would stage an end-of-term party in a beer manufacturing plant was confirmed.

If that can happen with a steel structure with no mind of its own, what chance do the planners have when it comes to predicting student choice and employer needs? Steel doesn't follow fashion, doesn't go where its friends go and doesn't demand independent and creative thinkers who will toe the company line.

So, here is a question for you: what is the biggest single difference between the Further Education Funding Council and the Learning and Skills Councillocal LSC? No, it isn't the change in cover design on the circulars. Nor is it the funding methodology, as endearingly arcane as ever; nor yet the re-imagined inspection regime or the 47-headed regional hydra. The major difference, and the one that will kill either it or us, is the power to plan the nature and location of provision and providers.

We know by now, that planning FE is an art. Getting it right involves a Picasso-like grasp of the relationships which lie beneath the apparent shapes and patterns of things. And, since the law of unintended outcomes applies here as nowhere else, the result can bear as much resemblance to the original plan as a Picasso figure to a human body. Bureaucrats think planning is a science. They collect data, analyse trends, predict future demand from present consumption and go home at night to find their spouse has left them.

Potentially, the most disastrous form of planning is that undertaken at the centre. I can reveal that the big bang which brought us all into being was a huge mistake. God realised what a dreadful calamity it would be to let matter loose to do its own thing. He planned to confine it all into one incredibly dense mass where he could keep an eye on it. When he (alright, possibly she) had done it, he realised that he had created the perfect golf ball, which would travel further than any before it. So he took out his driver and the rest is history.

If a single, governing body makes a planning error, then the damage is local and repairable. A central cock-up has a global effect. And, as we know, bureaucrats can get it gloriously, thumpingly and eye-poppingly wrong.

My favourite central planning disaster, because I used to travel regularly along it without ever seeing another motorised soul, is the M50. It extends 20 miles from nowhere to the middle of nowhere at a cost of heaven knows how much. It was built some years ago apparently on the assumption that Ross-on-Wye, where it ends, would become a major tourist mecca. It was also intended as a boost to the Welsh economy, but since most of the steel works and all of the coal mines closed two weeks before the road opened, it was not a spectacular success. The only traffic on it these days are lorries carrying imported steel to build the Welsh assembly.

Central planning needs centralised power, of course. Hitler's generals, no doubt, wanted to have a bash at Liechtenstein and take on a widening participation exercise in Switzerland. Hitler fancied Russia. Generals were not autonomous bodies and several heated discussions and some strong piano wire later, Russia it was, with predictable consequences.

But in FE there is a paradox. Governors are responsible for the "educational character" of their college. And now so is the local LSC. And this will not be a case of irresistible force and immoveable object. Governors' responsibilities and powers will diminish and the process has begun already.

So bye bye, strategic plans, corporate governance and student choice and hello to the diktats of regional development agencies and local LSCs into whose view of the universe we must soon all fit. If, that is, it all goes according to plan.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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