Editor's comment

18th November 2005 at 00:00
What grabbed the news headlines most this week in the Foster Review of FE is the thing least likely to happen. There will be no mass take-over of colleges by the private sector - whatever the CBI might wish.

While Sir Andrew Foster, former comptroller of the Audit Commission, is right to demand action on incessant failure, he also points out that this is a rapidly diminishing problem - as David Bell, head of Ofsted, agreed when he addressed the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham.

The Government's inquiry into FE, in many ways, states the obvious. If there was less government interference, more trust and clearer understanding of who should do what, quality would improve. Everyone is trying to do so much, cash is spread too thinly, with no time for luxuries such as workforce development.

Sir Andrew's report neatly unpicks the complexity of the FE stalls in the marketplace. He pleads with everyone to check their stock and discard what others do better or what is unnecessarily duplicated. Money liberated from rationalisation would more than solve the low-pay problem that triggered the national strike of lecturers this week.

However, in reaching his conclusions, Sir Andrew has had to make some very sweeping assumptions. Of course skills should take priority. As Chris Hughes, the former Learning and Skills Development Agency chief executive, said in his 2000 RSA Lecture: "It's the economy, stupid."

But what constitutes a "skills" qualification is not so straightforward.

Tapestry for ladies who lunch is leisure; manicure lessons for homeless mums are not. Threats to courses for socially excluded adults, like the one we report on this week (page 2), are all too real as colleges struggle to cut 500,000 "leisure-course" places in line with new funding priorities.

Foster talks of a system of commissioning through the LSC, with regional and national bodies deciding "what is needed" and college deciding "how best" to meet those needs.

The test of the Foster recommendations will not be in the big statements about underperforming colleges, wasteful effort and poorly trained staff.

It will be in the flexibility that should follow implementation, and whether lecturers, managers and support staff are given the resources and freedom to decide the best course of action for those in greatest need of FE.

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