FE needs all its famed flexibility for new era

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

Whoever won yesterday's general election - assuming it is possible to tell yet - will be looking to cut public spending tomorrow. This was always the buffer at the end of this rollercoaster election campaign and, at risk of cementing the role of FE Focus as the voice of doom, we're about to hit it.

Further education is used to the hard graft of delivering quality and improvement on a shoestring. Now, that shoestring is about to get shorter. The challenge, as Lucy McLynn says (page 1), is not just making the inevitable cuts but doing this while continuing to deliver quality education and securing the sector's financial future.

Put simply, the same-old same-old won't hack it any more, which presents senior management with a major challenge. To affect the radical change that Ms McLynn and others say is needed, managers must carry their staff with them - including those on strike this week over the proposed cuts and redundancies.

Now, this is no time for union-bashing, and perhaps Ms McLynn is a little harsh in inviting the inference that they are obstacles to progress. Their fight to protect members' jobs is understandable, as Ms McLynn acknowledges, but are we really to believe that unions are one-trick ponies unable to adapt to FE's changed circumstances?

Maybe they are. If this week's walk-out across London by members of the University and College Union is a taste of protracted and widespread industrial action, it will serve only to weaken the sector financially and undermine its reputation.

But if, as Ms McLynn puts it, change is the "new norm", is it too much to hope that the unions and management support each other in kicking the damaging habit of "us and them" industrial relations?

Senior managers must show a lead. As they explore new structures for FE, so too must they rethink the systems and processes that define the relationships between them, their staff and their businesses. This must be done in consultation.

FE has always been the adaptive layer in education, to borrow a phrase from Dame Ruth Silver, the former principal of Lewisham College. As such, its future lies in its own hands. But to seize the opportunities presented, FE managers and union leaders must bring about transformation through their collective leadership. A pushmi-pullyu approach will tear the sector apart, when common cause could deliver so much more.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus

E alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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