It's time to grasp the nettle of reform in FE

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
It's time to grasp the nettle of reform in FE

The review of FE governance, announced at Welsh Labour's spring conference last month, was a clear indication that the Assembly government is not content to let its 14-19 agenda progress by voluntary co-operation alone. Crab-like over the past few months, it has nipped schools and now colleges into following its collaboration agenda more closely. The continued insistence by some colleges that redundancies are still on the cards, despite the restoration of threatened budgets, seems to have made the government even more determined to assert its control over the sector.

Disquiet over FE governance has a long pedigree. The ATL and other FE unions have been pressing for such a review for some time. In our evidence to the 2007 Webb commission, we argued that the existing governance arrangements were inadequate. Many of our members felt that governors were too uncritical of senior management and had limited influence. One summed it up by saying that the governors at her college were "remote, invisible and ineffective".

It is also widely acknowledged that the incorporation arrangements, introduced by the Tory government in 1992, have always suffered from a democratic deficit. Incorporation took colleges from local authority control and established them as independent entities, with responsibility for - among other things - performance, strategy and staffing. It was hoped this greater autonomy would make the sector more responsive to the economy and fleeter of foot in responding to employers' needs. But some colleges became little more than personal fiefdoms, with little direct accountability to the wider community. Sometimes the resultant "dictatorship" was benign and productive, at other times less so. In the long term, such arrangements were bound to be unacceptable to Assembly governments that have rejected the marketplace solutions of Westminster, preferring co-operation to competition.

The FE governance review body has its work cut out. There will be partisans of the two previous models. Some will argue that incorporation has brought unparalleled blessings to the sector. They point to improved results and favourable reports from Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate. The counter-argument is that schools can show similar year on year improvements without incorporation. It assumes what it needs to prove. The evidence from the nearest control case - England's academies programme, which "frees" schools from local authority control - is strongly contested.

On the other side are those who yearn for a return to local authority control. Unfortunately, schools find this set-up less than perfect, pointing to the dire effects that lack of frontline funds and specialist resources is having on their provision.

The fact is the world has changed since the early 1990s. More and more voices are saying that the market model is ill-conceived for services such as health and education. Local government reform in 1996 left 22 small bodies where once there were eight largish ones. The National Assembly has also arrived on the scene and wants to develop a national, Wales-wide education system. Neither the present nor the past provide a model for its innovations in the 14-19 agenda. Hence the ministerial review speaks of a "general determination to transform the landscape of post-16 education" and of "governance arrangements to promote greater joint working and integration between schools and further education institutions".

While the focus of the review group will be dictated by its tight time frame - it reports back in the autumn - it will still need to consider governance in the round and not just pick at detail. It will need to be clear about the fundamental difference between governance and management. It will have to spell out how governance makes colleges accountable to local communities and national government. It will have to consider the composition of governing bodies and how staff and students are to be represented. It might wish to consider models that transcend institutional and local government boundaries. Finally, as the review impinges directly upon them, both in 14-19 delivery and in sixth-form provision, schools will need to feel that their interests are being represented.

Governance is not a theoretical issue; it affects students and staff. As schools and colleges start to share staff and deliver a common local curriculum, the injustices of FE contracts, working hours and pay have become more apparent. While the wholesale adoption of teachers' pay and conditions probably would not work, there is now an overwhelming case for Wales-wide terms and conditions for FE staff that are fairer than the present higgledy-piggledy arrangements. Any proposals for FE governance must accept this as a bottom line.

Good governance properly exercised offers critical friendship to institutions and helps them shape their strategic vision. It does so by harnessing the skills and knowledge of the entire workforce. Its vision exceeds the parochial and yet it is acutely aware of local needs. Whatever model eventually emerges for post-16 provision, its success will need to be judged against these criteria.

Dr Philip Dixon is director of ATL Cymru, the teachers' and lecturers' union.

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