FE must protect its reputation at all costs

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

There can be few things in society, other than perhaps death and taxes, as certain as the propensity to game a given system for advantage.

So widespread and potent is this human imperative that it supports vast and well-upholstered professions such as law that are expert at gaming any number of systems.

On one level, then, evidence that FE colleges may be playing games with their student returns in order to boost their success rates (page 1) is about as surprising as the antics of a London parent in search of a good school.

What shocks about the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) investigation is the implication that such sharp practice may be widespread and, according to a letter received by David Willetts, "endemic" in FE.

Whether widespread or not, and the LSC did not investigate the prevalence of such practices, the dangers to the reputation of the sector of such abuse cannot be overstated.

FE is on the brink of major change as it pushes for greater autonomy, underpinned by a sector-led drive for improvement and self-regulation. Colleges are rightly proud of their success rates, which are at an all- time high with over 80 per cent of people achieving qualifications in 200708 compared to 78 per cent the year before.

This reputation is hard fought, deserved and precious, so alarm bells ought to be ringing loud and clear in the sector this week.

Quality control is always a challenge in education, not least because students and teachers are not widgets that can be replicated indefinitely to a predetermined design.

Perhaps, then, allowing the student as consumer to underpin quality by assessing courses against a list of prepublished data, like the food labelling approach suggested by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, is an answer.

Colleges would then have to be responsive to student choice and their varying abilities in order to maintain quality, therefore their reputations and so the student numbers and funding that follows them.

There are many potential issues with a consumer-driven labelling approach, not least the risk of introducing the sort of league table tyranny that many would say blights our schools sector.

The LSC's investigation is a wake-up call to FE, which must protect and continue to enhance its reputation. It cannot afford the "perverse incentives", as Mr Willetts puts it, of a crude funding-follows-success model.

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