"You cannot be serious," said a friend the other night, rather McEnroe-esquely. He wasn't questioning my judgment, though; he meant it in the other sense. I am pathologically incapable of being po-faced and never more so than when asked to consider the national post-16 system.
Even the dear old Further Education Funding Council, thought by most to be way beyond a joke, brings a smile to my face. I mean, you have to feel sorry for anyone asked to police the FE sector, without so much as the power to stop and search.
But a letter crossed my desk the other day which wiped the smile off my face and had me reaching for the gin bottle. It was from the chairman of the FEFC and talked of a concordat on skills development with the soon-to-be-born Regional Development Agencies.
Until now I had thought a concordat was something college principals flew to America in, but it isn't. It is a pact, according to Chambers, normally struck between the Pope and a secular state. Well, with two rascals like those involved (I mean the Pope and the secular state, of course) I had to be worried, especially since it could mean giving away some of the sector's money. Nothing sobers me up like the thought of someone else spending my money.
The concordat could allow the RDA to determine what skill needs the FE sector should address.
I smell the stench of regional strategic planning and we all know what that means: swamps of labour market information, terribly soggy underfoot, heavy going and leading nowhere; very useful for bids to Europe, but dangerous territory for sensible people. These LMI swamps are breeding grounds for a debilitating disease known as needs analysis. The sector has been plagued by outbreaks of serious needs analysis before.
Under the LEA system, course provision was planned by people who had synthesised countless LMI documents into a needs analysis, but never been in an FE college. The whole system ground to a halt. Needs were analysed but never met.
Post-modernism should have put an end to grand plans but the delusion still persists in some quarters and the FEFC itself has seen several minor epidemics. I had thought the disease to be now largely confined to a few madmen in universities, economic development departments and Brussels.
So will someone higher in the food chain than me please tell them before it is too late that asking FE to respond to grand vocational sector designs means putting on courses which do not meet employer needs, do not lead to jobs and do not, therefore, attract any students?
Will someone also tell them that giving FE money to RDAs, or even the FEFC regional committee if they still have a role in this, to provide a steer to FE colleges is a backward step? We can waste it much more effectively on our own.
So, for once, I am deadly serious. And I have a solution. The trouble is, it does involve being nice to my local training and enterprise council. How tragic that it should produce its best idea just as the TEC movement looks doomed.
Their idea is simple: no big strategic plan; no pointless needs analysis; no handing over of FE cash to anyone else; anddefinitely no TEC top-slicing.
The first step is to bring together top managers in a vocational sector, say automotive engineering, and persuade them there is more to unite than divide them; and skills shortages are one of the things uniting them.
Then you add a sprinkling of FE college principals, get through the inevitable slanging match and, when the air clears, spell out the joint task. Together they define precisely the skills that the industry needs. They identify which existing qualifications are relevant and which need to be developed. The employers promise to invest in FE and FE promises to stop chasing easier markets. Together they act as a pressure group on awarding bodies, governments, TECs and the FEFC. In other words, they enter into a concordat of their own making rather than have one imposed upon them.
Totally simple, absolutely obvious, rather German but potentially the most effective training development in the last 50 years. It needs vision, trust, recognition, funding and from RDAs co-ordination and support rather than interference, bureaucracy and imposition. This time it's serious.