Blinded by funding's alchemical science

11th April 2003 at 01:00
I WAS quite fond of strategic plans and shall be sad to see them go. As principal, you could have hours of fun tweaking the mission statement and setting wild aims for vice-principals to chase: "This college will cut the number of accidents involving white van drivers on the Stafford stretch of the A5 by 15 per cent before the second Tuesday of August 2003."

That is a SMART target. It is smart because it sets out measurable outcomes in a clear temporal context, or TIME. (Termination of Intended Mission Event). It is also a DUMB target because it gets one vice-principal asking another whether the old man really means it and the other answers: Don't Underestimate the Miserable B**T**D (or DUMB, as it is called in management manuals).

But gone they have, to be replaced by development plans, the first of which colleges must produce by July 2003. This is all clearly explained in my favourite Circular 0301: "TRIPE in FE" (Tracking and Reviewing Increased Performance Expectations in further education colleges). This is all very exciting and I am pleased to offer my guidance to those colleagues too busy doing their job to notice what the Learning and Skills Council is up to.

Simple questions first. What is the difference between a development plan and a strategic plan? Well, clearly the title is different, and this means that you will have to think again about the way you design the cover. The design motif will need radical rethinking to show the difference between the two. Out go motifs with tanks and lawns, which was "strategy". In will come new houses being built on green belt: "development". But just as strategic plans were never about development, so development plans will not have any strategy in them. Or not your strategy, anyway.

Strategy is now the province of your betters at the LSC and is none of your business. They have the magic ingredient that single colleges lacked: the overview. Colleges only have underview, which means that since you cannot see what is under your nose, there is no chance that you will understand wider community needs. So you develop someone else's strategy. Ownership of an idea is now considered an outmoded motivational concept. The new concept is Second Hand Execution of External Projects (SHEEP).

But it gets much better. A development plan is to be your plan of plans. It will include your self-assessment action plan; your post-inspection action plan; your pre-inspection action plan (the only one worth having, and life-or-death stuff); your risk assessment action plan; your downgraded strategic plan; your floor targets; your headline targets (and all targets between floor and headline); your staff development plan; your human resources plan; your departmental business plans; your retirement and pension plans and your plans for avoiding pointless meetings with local learning partnerships and others.

You are expected to write at least one side offering your understanding of how Connexions will work, with at least a paragraph on the link between the Connexions service and the Connexions card. Finally, there is space to say how long you think the LSC will last before it is replaced by a computer called Deep Thought, offering an answer to life, the universe and everything. The only constraint is that the final document has to be no longer than the circular which spawned it: 97 pages on how to reduce bureaucracy.

Another question you are bound to ask is what exactly is being developed in a development plan. Again, the answer is simple. These plans will develop your capacity to predict the future and your ability to develop post-hoc rationalisations for spending money.

Let me explain. The Further Education Funding Council, looking better by the retrospective minute, would approve your plan and then fund it. The LSC is about to agree our funding and will then approve our development plan, which you will write to justify the generous dollop of money. Second, the LSC will reserve 2 per cent of your funding until it has approved your development plan.

Easy, you say - just show me the criteria against which my plan will be judged and I will be happy to away and write one. But that is where your predictive skills come in handy. Because there are no criteria. Apparently, a good development plan is one which the LSC has approved and the criteria for assessment appear to be whether it approves it or not. Of course we do know the criteria: we have to show complete compliance with the LSC local plan, Ofsted's strategic area review, "Success for All", "Excellence and Diversity", your post-inspection action plan and UN resolution 1441.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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