Hack at the undergrowth but point to the summit

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Maybe it's something to do with my Yorkshire birth, or it's my Presbyterian upbringing, but I do enjoy it when I find some plain speaking. So I was pleased to see the Engineering Employers' Federation call the UK's skills system "a muddle of overlapping public bodies with ill-defined objectives".

You may or may not be convinced by its suggestion that the Learning and Skills Council should be merged with the Sector Skills Development Agency, the quango responsible for the skills councils, but the federation is performing a valuable service in saying: "it need not be like this: here's a better way".

That's just what we should be doing as governors. FE loves a good moan. We would hardly be human not to be wearied now and then by all the challenges, but moaning mustn't be the end of it. We need to keep asking, along with the federation: "Is there a better way?"

Our job as governors is not to administer an imperfect system well. We must point out that it is imperfect, and look for ways to make it better. I know that with so much effort simply going into making the system work, there's precious little time, or energy, left to think of ways to improve it. Every year, skilled college managers have to learn what the LSC has done to the funding system, so they can minimise the damage from unintended consequences, and learn how to make the new rules work for the college's best advantage.

As a teenager, I read the story of Mallory and Irving's ill-fated attempt to climb Everest in 1924, with their long trudge through the bamboo-covered foothills and their exhilaration as they neared the summit. It must have made quite an impression because I come back again and again to the metaphor of climbing a mountain.

So I see good people in FE using their skill and energy to hack a way through the fast-regrowing undergrowth, but sometimes losing sight of the top of the mountain. It's all too easy to see the job as keeping the undergrowth from strangling us. Part of our role as governors is to raise everyone's sights to the top of the mountain, so that we remember what it's all for. That's why it's so important to be clear how we relate to the LSC.

We get most of our income from the council, and spend most of our time, if we're honest, following the national agenda, doing what LSC asks us to do. But we fail if we simply accept its agenda without question.

Colleges are an important part of the national effort on education and skills, which is a good reason to take the LSC seriously (Oh, and the cheques help.) But they don't own us, and they don't own our agenda. If some of what we should be doing as a college isn't on the LSC's agenda, that's no excuse for simply moaning. It's a reason to make our case, singly and through the Association of Colleges, and to work out what we can do anyway if the LSC won't budge. I think the LSC would agree.

I am an optimist. For me, the glass isn't so much half full as just about to overflow. Everything which we see now as a constraint has been invented by fallible human beings in the recent past, so it can be changed. A vital part of our role as governors is to keep on saying that, so we continually push to find better ways forward.

Iain Mackinnon is chair of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College

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