Editor's comment

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Colleges are more successful than ever, with only eight judged inadequate and even fewer "failing". So, why have ministers used the otherwise celebratory further education white paper to crack the whip at the sector?

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, criticised "coasting" colleges this week. It was the prelude to announcing new powers for the Learning and Skills Council to dismiss principals and to get rid of weak governing bodies.

It is an unnecessary and potentially trouble-some change that whiffs of the Dangerous Dogs Act - one Rottweiler attacks a pensioner and every pooch in the land is condemned to life in a muzzle.

The LSC can already call for college closures, which the Education Secretary must then decide on. But if council bosses have all the power, there is a risk they will abuse it. The right of a college to have its case heard by a higher authority is also lost.

Where else in education does a third party have power to dismiss an employer from another organisation? It is a recipe for inertia. How could the LSC collect evidence of incompetence and inadequacy under these circumstances? What happens if the governors tell the council where to go? We will have scenes of governors dragging the LSC into court to defend its decisions - costly affairs that could leave the council and taxpayer with huge compensation bills.

Clearly, the LSC needs more say over mergers and other reforms for the expansion of specialist FE and sixth-form colleges - an excellent proposal in the white paper. But why be so heavy-handed? Yet again, it flags up failure not success.

Ministers have used such tactics before - usually to deflect attention from the lack of new cash to back initiatives. Maybe they were expecting an outcry this time. After all, pound;67 million for colleges is small beer compared with pound;3 billion in the budget for schools last week. The relaunch of individual learning accounts has come with no extra cash and all money must be spread more thinly as private industry can claim for staff training. But colleges have not whinged about cash. They were not really expecting any.

Nor is there much new in the white paper. It is an affirmation of recommendations in Sir Andrew Foster's review of the future of colleges, which calls for FE to focus on skills for employability. That said, it is a bold statement in support of colleges - a statement that would be improved immensely if the clause on mediocre and coasting colleges was quietly dropped.

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