The pragmatism with which colleges are approaching the biggest-ever review of the services they provide is to be applauded. There are no signs of bleating for more cash. The willingness to work with schools and industry to improve post-14 education and training has never been stronger. Where college principals reckon the Learning and Skills Council's strategic area reviews are being conducted fairly, they accept that they could lose out financially to other providers.
This picture emerges from the FE Focus national survey published this week and from the Association of Colleges recent policy symposium for 140 college principals (page 5). Where consultations are local, open and involve the colleges, principals will bite the bullet if need be.
There is widespread recognition of the efforts ministers have made to extract more cash for colleges from the Treasury. There is an understanding too of the need for players other than colleges to be involved in the learning and skills sector. As the LSC launches its agenda for change - with the pledge to rationalise funding and cut red tape - colleges are showing unswerving commitment.
Difficulties emerge not in the global vision but in the lack of certainties on too many fronts. At the outset, the problem with the strategic area reviews was that, they led to a planning blight. Few were willing to commit to costly ideas if the funds failed to flow through. As Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the AoC, says colleges need "steady state" funding.
For this, there must be a more prompt announcement from the LSC of exactly what colleges can spend in the coming year - that is, in February or March, not June, like this year. A similar plea is made by Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing education, for more consistent funding (see right).
If ministers have been at fault anywhere, it is in artificially raising expectations and hence - by default - breaking promises. It happened in David Blunkett's reign as education ssecretary, when he was prone to double announcements of the same cash. It happened under Charles Clarke when a record rise for FE evaporated in the heat of extra National Insurance and pensions demands.
When college principals are confident in their expectations of what is promised, that confidence percolates through management and staff. However, despite the new wave of pragmatism, there are still serious worries about unfulfilled promises over pay and whether the national skills strategy will work locally without extra cash. So, everything is still very much in the balance.