Don't hold us prisoner to work for any price

3rd July 2009 at 01:00

Like every other college, we face tough decisions about how to balance our books for next year. In our case, as a very large college, we will need to reduce our costs by at least Pounds 3 million.

So, are we desperate to find any new business we can at any price? No, we're not.

We have recently turned down the opportunity to take (not just bid for) one of the Learning and Skills Council's very large, multi-year prison education contracts. My fellow governors, senior college managers and I are dismayed by the outcome. We very much want to be able to take on the Offenders' Learning and Skills Service (Olass) work, and can see great educational opportunity. However, we cannot take on a contract that would certainly lose us money, and where we see so little scope for doing a quality job for the learners.

The likelihood is that the contract will need to be retendered, and may well go to the private sector.

We had put in a bid for one of three Olass contracts in London and lost to Kensington and Chelsea College, the incumbents. But the LSC liked our bid and asked us to discuss one of the other two, as City and Islington College had declined the chance to pursue it. That is why I say we had the chance to take the contract, not just bid for it. The LSC certainly wanted us to have it.

The fact that City and Islington College had walked away, and that Lewisham College had decided not to bid, obviously put us on our guard. These are well-run colleges, with the scale and the imagination to take on big contracts. It took a lot of digging to find out what was really going on, despite well-meant and generous support from the LSC itself, from the education teams in the prisons and from other colleges. As a result of our digging, it became clear to us that the money on offer for the contract was woefully inadequate.

I take a simple view of these matters: money in must exceed money out. And we were clear that, when necessary restructuring had taken place, we would lose perhaps Pounds 500,000.

In addition to deeply unappealing arithmetic, there were risks - all falling on us - which were hard to quantify.

Is our refusal a case of the public sector sitting smugly on guaranteed income while the hungry and flexible private sector chases the business? I don't think so. From my own business experience, I know how stupid it is to chase work for the sake of it: we have to be able to deliver it well. Long-term success lies in building a reputation, and it is madness to throw that reputation away for short-term gain.

Nor do I take the view that the private sector is always the wrong answer. And I have no problem with open competition: that is how I win business in my own company.

The problem is that the LSC is buying the wrong thing. Despite the best efforts of the staff involved, the LSC has too little money in the contract, so it can only buy a rather basic minimum.

By chance, after we made our decision, I came across an excellent report published by the Prisoners' Education Trust in March, entitled Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners. It is clear from the report that many prisoners genuinely want to learn in order to better themselves, and are deeply frustrated by the many obstacles in their path. As a college, we very much want to be able to work with them, but not at any price.

Iain Mackinnon, Chair of governors, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.

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