Colleges failed to stir the voting public

25th February 2000 at 00:00
THE TROUBLE about being ill with a temperature is that you lose your sense of certainty about what is real and what is a dream. A week's flu recently put me into that troubling world of half-awake nightmares and drugged visions of distorted reality.

I was convinced, for example, that the return of Michael Portillo to the front benches was but a figment of my fevered imagination.

A mouthful of aspirins later, I realised it was true. Then again, surely I hadn't really read that the Conservative Party wanted to bring local education authorities back into the planning and funding of colleges? Wrong again: it does.

There is a very small band of current college principals whose service not only reaches back to incorporation but extends into the 1980s.

We remember things as they were.

Just to make sure that I was not hallucinating from the effects of the flu, I arranged a spot of old-style tele-conferencing with these Triassic survivors. In other words, like the old Parliamentary Liberal party, we met in a phone box. What follows is a summary of our collective memories.

No two LEAs were the same, and the level and detail of the control they offered and support they provided varied.

Control it most certainly was, however.

It seems barely credible now, but none of the college principals in the discussion knew the annual turnover of the college before incorporation.

We didn't have budgets, we didn't have bank accounts, and we didn't have cheque books.

The very idea of such financial responsibility was dismissed out of hand by the authority. One officer went on record as saying he would rather give a cheque book to Saddam Hussein than to a college principal.

They were convinced that we would all fail to manage colleges after incorporation, and one authority ran a book on which of their colleges would be the first to go bankrupt.

All of this would have been hurtful enough, but the authorities themselves were not necessarily any great shakes at managing their colleges. They certainly did not know how many students had been enrolled.

Nor, to my personal knowledge, did they know how many staff were employed in them, let alone how long they had worked there and what their attendance record was like.

Some colleges allegdly "lost" money, although how that is conceptually possible without a budget is problematic. Others, allegedly, made a surplus.

The records show no action taken to upbraid or congratulate the principals concerned. Nor is it clear that the education committee knew about the financial performance of individual colleges.

Perhaps they were better at planning, and were able to ensure an adequate and sufficient service of further education. That's not what people remember.

What would now be called level 4 courses were subject to the approval of a regional kangaroo court.

Lower-level provision was down to the energy and ingenuity of individual principals, sometimes with the help of FE officers who would swing some funding in the right direction. But nobody would dignify the process of horse-trading by calling it planning.

Level funding? I don't think so. There was, of course, no attempt by LEAs to define a common level of funding.

So there were discrepancies of up to 300 per cent between colleges in different parts of the country. But, even within LEA boundaries, there were the haves and the have-nots.

It was not just the unit of resource which fluctuated, at least in those authorities where there was such a thing, but levels of equipment, quality of building, and the availability of professional support.

None of this was set out in any kind of policy statement. It just happened when officers indulged their prejudices and conferred their favours.

Never mind all that. The key thing about LEAs and their control of colleges was that they were accountable.

The electorate had a direct line of influence on the conduct of colleges thanks to the presence on governing bodies of LEA nominees. Well yes, in theory.

In practice, however, the electors are not much interested in what goes on in colleges, and there was never any sense that an LEA representative was speaking for any kind of constituency. Proposals for FE did not usually figure in local election manifestos.

However, if we have to return to the warm embrace of the LEA (thinly disguised as a Local Learning and Skills Council) we will do so. Perhaps they can do better next time.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington amp; Rossendale College, Lancashire

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