The elusive value of trust
The bureaucracy busters have been at it again and following a spectacularly poor piece of communication from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), colleges belatedly now know whether they are in "plan-led funding" mode, or in limbo: "in scope" or "out of scope". No, I have no idea why they chose such daft terminology either.
To be in scope for 2004-5, apparently, a college had to hit at least 97 per cent of its recruitment target in 2002-3, or possibly its cash target, or perhaps its full-time equivalent target, as counted in either October, or possibly November, or perhaps July, but certainly definitely not any of the other months unless they have an R in them, perhaps.
This unremarkable feat has to be achieved to the satisfaction of a posse of auditors whose only means of back-protection is to strike from the record as many of your students as they can across as wide a range of courses as possible using arcane rules, the prolonged and dedicated study of which has ruined their eyesight and their tempers.
Once you've done it, you're over the first fence. Only the electrified ditch with man-eating crocodiles and hidden tank traps remains to be navigated: for the same year you need to have met the deadline for returning an unqualified set of financial accounts audited by a different set of terrorists.
The LSC never bothered to tell us who had passed the test and who had failed because it was obvious. The pass criteria were spelled out for us in paragraph 14 of a circular last March and there is apparent surprise at the LSC that not all of us spotted it or that something as simple and crucial as this had faded from our memories.
So what does being "in scope" mean? Given the barriers to joining this exclusive club, the benefits must be enormous. First, it means that the LSC is officially allowed to trust you. "Trust in FE" is a major policy initiative and those of us "in scope" have now been endorsed as trustees.
Being officially trusted is good, I suppose, and I confess to a nice warm feeling now that I am free of suspicion. I never did quite work out why I was under suspicion in the first place given a lifetime's unblemished record in public service, but that would surely be to miss the point.
The first thing I can do with my new freedom is rid myself of those intrusive auditors who want to know all my business: the ones mentioned above who crawl on hands and knees with flashlights looking into every murky corner of our student records trying to uncover errors and inconsistencies and inevitably succeeding.
As I shake hands and wish them well, I feel a tap on my shoulder. Another set of auditors in even sharper suits wants to know how I will now be sure that the money I spend has been properly earned, because if it hasn't and a periodic check discovers errors, I could lose a lot of money going back several years.
For a sum, they can help me, they say. They can do what the departing lot used to do and put the assurance back, though they can't take the blame if anything goes wrong. So either I take an unquantifiable risk for free or I cough up and take a different risk.
As they exit stage left, the first set of auditors re-enters through a different door, like in a Whitehall farce. We're back to do the new audit, they say. It's called regularity audit and it's a LULU, much worse than the student record audit you almost got rid of for a moment. We'll do it for the same fee as before if you keep us on to do the financial audit as well.
At this point I have had enough of bureaucracy busting. Why can't they find someone else's bureaucracy to bust? I have the same audits as before, at greater cost, with a new one to boot. And if this is the reward for being a good college and "in scope", what on earth is the penalty for being "out of scope" and, by definition, untrustworthy?
"Out of scope colleges get the same audit as before plus the new regularity audit," says an LSC spokesman. "But so do we," I respond. "What's the difference?"
"I'm not at liberty to tell you," he says. "But there is one. You'll just have to trust me on that."
Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college