Any day now we may hear the date of the next election. In the past four years a lot has happened to the context in which FE colleges work, but has anything really changed within the colleges themselves? Nationally, incomes are up and unemployment is down, Livingstone is in and Mandelson is out, the future for foxes is bright, though for asylum-seekers it's grim. So what?, as the man said.
Well, we've had more money, lots of it. What with the Standards Fund, the New Opportunities Fund, the National Learning Network Fund, and all the rest, the folding stuff has been thrown at us in large handfuls. We can't claim that all of it has missed the target. Now there is a probability of the previously unthinkable: more money in college budgets to fund a pay rise for staff. Too little, too late, the cynics are already crying, but forget them for the moment. It is unreservedly a good thing that the Government has at last noticed that pay rises have to be paid for, and that recruitment to some jobs has become a matter of taking on people who would have been lucky to be shortlisted a few years ago.
So, if money is not quite the problem that it was, why is it that we are still feeling uneasy about this Government, which seemed to promise so much four years ago? If there is a feast going on all around us, why do we feel like a slightly embarrassing guest? It is clear that the public sector is not in good odour generally. There have been, post-Shipman and post-Alder Hey, crises of confidence in health. Continuing revelations about child abuse further undermine the reputation of social services. And prisons are now revealed as scandalously primitive.
Have we been caught up in this spreading public disfavour simply because we are not in the private sector? You may remember the brief doggerel: I sat next to the Duchess at tea It was just as I feared it would be Her rumbles abdominal Were simply phenomenal And everyone thought it was me If it's not simply a case of guilt by association, what else is it? What have we done to offend? Clearly, we have not correctly read the Government's intentions about whom to recruit. We thought, or at least many of us did, that the name of the game was widenin participation to embrace more people than ever before. To do this well we have had to revise and refresh the curriculum and run it through the filter marked "relevance". Now we are told to specialise in areas of excellence. That is a polite way of saying "select and exclude, and don't get mired in bog-standard comprehensive mode". Not quite the message we would have expected from a Labour government which came into office with the cry "no more selection, read my lips" still echoing up and down the corridors.
So we misread their palm. Did they in turn misread ours? The Government, its ministers and civil servants know schools and universities like the back of their hand. What we are good at, in most places, most of the time, is fashioning what we offer to fit local and often individual needs. And, what's more, making something which attracts people who need a lot of persuading to give education another try. Rising rates of achievement and improving retention are, rightly, seen as important indicators of high quality, but they don't measure creativity and imagination in the design and delivery of the curriculum. This government has used the same mechanical tools of measurement as it applies to schools and universities, where institutional aspiration is more modest.
What can we do to get back into the good books? We could make a few points about the connection between a flourishing economy and the recent raising of the level of skills and qualifications. Whenever our economy has been in the dumps, the cry has gone up that our workforce lags behind the international competition in terms of skills and qualifications. We've had several good years on the trot now, and those years have coincided with colleges' efforts to attract more people into learning, and to get them qualifications. We have also seen the impact of the many more graduates coming out of a mass higher education system and into employment. More of them have got jobs in the small companies, which are the engines of our national economic success. Where were these extra students prepared for university study? Why, in the colleges, of course.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College