Don't ditch the human heritage

24th November 2000 at 00:00
I ONCE worked in a college that had photographs of all its staff in the foyer.

You got a good feeling of belonging from them. In the first of many restructurings, many people retired or left. Just as Stalin used to airbrush out the displaced colleagues of his politburo, the photographs of retired colleagues, many with long histories of loyalty and commitment, were removed before the rest of us re-appeared for work.

Over seven years since colleges were incorporated in 1993, 150,000 staff have left the FE sector and of the remainder, more than 50 per cent are on some form of temporary or casual contract. Staff photographers must be doing a roaring trade. Now it's the turn of staff in the Further Education Funding Council and its inspectorate to have their photographs airbrushed as displaced bureaucrats and inspectors hope for a role in the new structures.

Nevertheless, the reorganisation of the training and enterprise councils, the Training and Standards Inspectorate and the FEFC into the learning and skills councils, the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate offers a poor example of how to create a "learning organisation".

There is little evidence so far that the new structures are building upon past strengths, rectifying weaknesses and maximising the experience of people who worked in the old organisations. In a sector supposedly devoted to lifelong learning, and in spite of large sums of public money invested in the FEFC and inspection, there has been no official evaluation of the pros and cons of the arrangements being phased out. Nor does there seem to be much attention to the different types of capital that underpin learning organisations.

It would be easy to find out what has been invested from the public purse in FEFC's personnel, offices, the IT systems now being replaced with new ones, staff training, salaries, relocation allowances, expenses and retirement pay offs. Physical capital is tangible and can be counted.

A much less obvious cost in reorganisation is investment in human capital, namely the skills and knowledge that individuals must develop in order to do their jobs. Like physical capital, much of this can be counted: some is paid for through staff training and a hety amount is funded by individuals themselves.

Yet many reorganisations pay scant attention to human capital when they design new roles for an organisation. In one college I know of, a big redundancy programme encourages staff at any level to leave until the target figure has been saved in salaries. Expertise and commitment to the organisation simply do not figure.

But it is investment in social capital that is the most easily overlooked in a reorganisation. Deriving heavily from people's commitment to colleagues, the organisation itself and broader social goals such as the "good of the FE sector", social capital is the collective trust, loyalty, knowledge, skills and commitment built up between organisations, teams and individuals. It makes formal systems work and encourages a commitment to the achievement of peers that can ease difficulties.

Yet investment in social capital is not tangible, it takes time to build and is often informal. Of course, social capital can fossilise and lead people to become conservative or complacent. It might even exclude ideas from those outside the group. But attention to building and regenerating it underpins the best organisations and learning groups.

Although there were tensions, the FEFC regional offices, inspectorate and college managers invested heavily in human and social capital over seven years.

The new structures are not exploiting this. Instead, they reflect social capital inherited from the TECs and from a training model of inspection, only two years old that has not yet been evaluated. And there is a similar haemorrhage of human and social capital from the FEFC to that experienced by many colleges.

The heads of the LSCs, OFSTED and ALI are creating the largest national funding and inspection system for post-16 education and training that this country has ever had. A key question is how they intend to build upon expertise and all forms of capital to set a flourishing example of a learning organisation.

The depressing thing about reorganisation in post-16 education is that, far from lifelong learning, the same question will probably arise again in a few years.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle

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