Editor's comment

7th October 2005 at 01:00
What has changed for colleges since FE Focus was launched 10 years ago? One is tempted to say little has, and seek evidence to prove it. A leaked Cabinet report of 1995 showed Gillian Shephard, education secretary, at odds with the Treasury over "efficiency" measures to slow FE growth.

"Stopping the growth of a dynamic FE sector would be difficult to defend," she said. FE was central to the Government's strategy for national competitiveness.

A funding crises loomed. Lecturers threatened action over contracts and pay. The struggle for parity between academic and vocational qualifications continued, as ministers tore-up plans for an over-arching 14-19 diploma.

And the Government, undeterred, insisted skills for work should take priority.

But things did change under Labour - for better and for worse. Achievement rates have shot up, industrial relations improved and a new national framework for qualifications was promised. While there is anxiety over recruitment to adult education, there has been record growth in numbers.

One in three colleges face insolvency, as they did in 1995.

Some of the best achievements have been in social inclusion and widening participation. With this, however, came the curse of the decade - bureaucracy.

The problems go back to the Tories who introduced a mix of strict targets for skills and new freedoms elsewhere. Colleges were exhorted to "find creative ways of expanding". They succeeded beyond expectation, creating new demands on the public purse, until the Treasury demanded action. Under Labour, mountains of paperwork, complex funding - and a huge array of checks and targets were generated - in the name of accountability.

Tempers exploded in 2000, when college leaders demanded action after FE Focus revealed that pound;250 million a year was wasted on pointless paperwork. It marked the start of Labour's pledge to roll back the state, cut unnecessary paperwork and admin and put the cash back into teaching and learning. This has begun with more flexible funding rules and radical reductions in numbers employed by the Learning and Skills Council.

The challenge to organisations representing FE, like the 10 who formed the Concord Group, is to regain control from government. To do so needs constant scrutiny of policy and robust debate. As FE Focus starts its second decade, we will maintain a platform, starting this week with the first TES National Learning and Skills Symposium.

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