It is a challenge to come up with useful metaphors for quangos, but, just maybe, these organisations are a bit like those exotic plants that the Victorians valued for ornamental purposes. Like Japanese knotweed, once thought of as looking good in a shrubbery, which is now viewed as so dangerously invasive by gardeners that its presence is treated with all the tolerance of a smoker in, well, almost any situation.
Quangos always seem a good idea at the time. Someone, after all, has to run things, so why not a quango offering that comforting mix of autonomy moderated by state control. Trouble is, they spread like wildfire: there are some 1,600 across the UK with a total combined budget of pound;64 billion and employing around 700,000 people, according to the Taxpayers' Alliance.
Calls by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES, page 1) to cut further education's quality-improvement quangocracy down to size are, therefore, understandable and welcomed by many in the sector. But what is being proposed in their place? There is no disagreement about the need for quality control and enhancement in FE and to that end many of the functions performed by bodies - not all of them quangos but all publicly- funded - like the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, Lifelong Learning UK, the Government's IT champion Becta and the Institute for Learning are valid.
The point made by UKCES is whether we need to spend an estimated pound;130 million on all of these bodies when a customer-led quality-improvement system could do the job just as effectively and far more cheaply.
The commission suggests a system not unlike food labelling, which is controlled by the Food Standards Agency, where all the information is made available on a product to help people make informed descisions about what to buy. But surely that would require the creation of something like a Further Education Standards Agency to collate and, perhaps in some cases, generate the information, ensure that it is accurate, up to date and comparable, then, to disseminate it. And it would all come at a cost.
That said, the UKCES report is timely given the pressure to cut public spending. FE has it within its grasp to create a simple yet effective quality improvement system that serves both its business-like providers and their clients.
But what's the betting that this will involve the establishment of a quango?
Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, E firstname.lastname@example.org.