Whitehall must loosen grip and return power to local staff, says man leading review of FE's future. Joseph Lee reports
The Government should loosen its restrictive grip on further education, says the man in charge of reviewing the future of colleges.
Sir Andrew Foster told last week's TES Vision 2010 and Beyond symposium that the balance between local and central power would be one of the themes in his report, due to be published in November.
Colleges' independence and ability to innovate have been stifled by too much centralisation, he said. "Part of my analysis may be that, in recent years, it's felt like it's been a bit of a top-down system which has sometimes not given as much innovation or creativity to a local level.
"A lot of my experience tells me that you lose something if you don't have a strong local input."
The failure to balance local and national power properly was partly responsible for the "dysfunction" of FE, he said. He expected that resolving it would involve "a tense and difficult conversation".
At the conference, colleges challenged Sir Andrew on another of his major themes: a call for greater clarity of purpose in FE. They fear that a tighter definition of what colleges are for could undermine their flexibility and relevance in changing circumstances.
Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, asked: "Isn't there a danger that, by stating a purpose, it will then be used by tidy-minded civil servants to destroy some of the diversity in the system, in the sense of saying this is the college sector's purpose and the other things are less important?"
Sir Andrew said FE should look to universities to see how they select certain aspects of their work to project to the world. He warned colleges that if they tried to have a counter-argument to every proposal, "inertia can rule".
"I think sometimes the sector hasn't always been as proactive at determining its own agenda and as innovative as it might.
"That does a lot to the psychology of how people feel about themselves - the ability of this sector to feel it's done unto, it's a victim, that it didn't get its fair share of the cake, that politicians aren't really interested."
He said he will also consider clarifying FE's complex accountability systems and analyse failures in developing its workforce.
It will assess how well colleges listen to students, who he said have very different priorities from principals, and their relationship with employers, which he compared to a battleground.
Sir Andrew warned that his report, which will be 60 or 70 pages long, would not be a panacea for colleges' problems.
"Any idea that there's a magic silver bullet solution ... seems to me a pretty naive one," he said.
It will focus on setting out a strategic analysis and outlining principles - giving only a few practical recommendations.
Sir Andrew said that getting the complete agreement of the 20 or 30 competing interests in the FE world would be impossible.
"You have to end up being true to yourself in what you see and hear and observe," he said.
"My pitch to people would be to bring as much openmindness as they can bring to bear, which I'm sure is substantial, because there are quite big opportunities here for this sector for the future."
Sir Andrew is a former head of the Audit Commission and previously headed the inquiry into red tape in FE.
Symposium report: www.fefocus.co.uk