FE policy dogged by ignorance

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Your account in FE Focus of the Association of London Government recommendations for the replacement of the market-led system of funding further education with a system which is planned at regional level exposes the ignorance about the sector which has characterised policy-making for too many years (TES, April 11). Nevertheless, it does emphasise the major deficiency in the present quasi-market system, the failure to use the price mechanism to afffect college behaviour.

Why won't the further education sector respond to planning?

For a start, because colleges won't give up the limited freedom of the past few years for a return to control by people who have no responsibility for making things happen.

Second, because the complexity of colleges is not susceptible to planning - an average general FE college will offer more qualifications than are available across the whole of the English school and higher education sectors combined.

Finally, colleges are adept at subverting the best intentions of those who attempt to influence their behaviour. The present funding system was devised without any thought of it being used to fund training by employers through franchise arrangements, but once the idea took hold, colleges seized it and expanded provision so fast that it left the Further Education Funding Council running to catch up. Any regulated system would have a coach and horses driven through it by many of the new breed of college managers.

What the ALG report fails to do is to recognise the truth of its own analysis and attempt to rectify the deficiencies in the market-led system.

This means creating a pricing structure which reflects the value put on provision, not the historic cost, making decisions about what sort of FE is wanted and how good it has to be, and then paying the price for that, whilst cutting prices for less valued or less good provision.

I know that the present system takes some account of quality through retention and achievement, but it is a crude and unsatisfactory measure.

The big question is, who decides the value? This is the question which governments (both local and national) have ducked for over a decade, because it's easier to criticise colleges for not delivering what is wanted than it is to say what you do want, and how much you are prepared to pay.

Would regional groupings of local authorities, training and enterprise councils and other employment-related bodies be willing to say: "We need more engineering technicians and fewer leisure centre staff and we are prepared to pay you to do just that?" The idea was floated in 1985 with the top-slicing of the rate-support grant, but this just led to the involvement of Manpower Services Commission area offices with the planning of FE instead.

Can it be done better now? Probably not, but it is worth a limited trial, especially as a way of encouraging the growth of provision in areas of forecast labour market shortage.

The difficulty is that it might need money, and we all know that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are prepared to pay for the FE they occasionally remember to talk about.

DAVID PARDEY The Old Chapel West Horrington Wells Somerset

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