Editor's Comment

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Can the solution to excessive red tape and paperwork really be as simple as Sir Andrew Foster suggests? The man appointed by ministers as gatekeeper against excessive bureaucracy says: "Good management can sometimes be about deciding not to do things." A lovely phrase, of which it is tempting to say that had governments left well alone for the past two decades, maybe colleges would not be in their present mess.

But colleges, other training agencies and companies are in a mess. And only ministers can get them out of it. The answer is not just more cash but a major cut in the levels of scrutiny, accountability and intervention by government and its agencies at all levels. All indications of how to achieve this are in Sir Andrew's report, to be published at the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference next week (see page 5).

The report has strong echoes of papers which have emerged over the past 24 months from the Learning and Skills Council bureaucracy-busting taskforce that preceded it. On the one hand this may provoke impatience: if we knew the problems two or three years ago, why wait until now to take action? On the other hand, Sir Andrew has stepped in as an outsider to confirm what those on the inside knew all along.

An outsider's delicate diplomacy and political persuasion was needed to counter the deeply held, cynical views on both sides. When Trust in FE was published following the first taskforce report, there were howls of derision from college managers and cynical civil servants, doubtful that improvements would ever come about.

Sir Andrew has shown that it can and must happen. The Education Secretary Charles Clarke says he will act on his advice. That would mean reducing the number of college inspections but ensuring that they provide valuable information; huge cuts in data demanded by different agencies; and a freer hand over spend.

But the real prize is far bigger than the satisfaction of 400-plus institutions. It is a world-class FE system that brings employment and education together. It is what ministers say is still lacking, but it is what colleges and training providers insist they want. If ministers really act on Sir Andrew's report, then maybe the very things colleges can decide not to do will result in good management and progress towards these goals.

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