It's time to show us who's boss
Follow this simple line of thought from line manager to line manager and things may become less murky. Once you get to your college's governors, however, things are far from clear. They are usually a rattle bag of local dignitaries and businessmen. Do they have real power? It gets more miasmic as you go higher. Is the Learning and Skills Council or the Higher Education Funding Council or one of the various awarding bodies your real boss?
What about the DfES, Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate? They all seem equally powerful or powerless depending on how you look at them. And at the very top, there is a vacuum. We have a minister for school standards, another for lifelong learning and further and higher education, and one for children, who cover between them 14 to 19, raising standards, the LSC and Connexions. Ivan Lewis, as a junior minister, focuses on his responsibilities for adult skills, vocational education and international post-16 education.
What this amounts to is not a productive sharing of roles, but a structural avoidance of responsibility. If we had a minister of state just for further education, the buck would clearly stop there.
Ros Clow, who chairs the universities' council for the education of teachers post-16 committee, has been amusing herself by drawing up a list of who is responsible for teacher training in FE and has come up with a list of more than 20 bodies, including the DfES, LSC, TTA, QAA, HEFCE, UUK and SCOP, FENTO, LSDA, IfL, ILTHEA, Natfhe, AoC, UCET, BSA, NIACE, Ofsted and ALI. What's more, you can probably draw up a similar list for any subject area in the FE curriculum.
This chaotic situation is sometimes represented as empowering or even democratic. The responsibilities of government have been devolved to local skills councils, FE colleges, or to the real experts, the lecturers. This is often a deliberate strategy, as in the case of the attack on bureaucracy that has come out of the Cabinet Office's "Better Regulation" initiative.
The Government no longer wants to interfere directly but to set the guidelines and leave the FE colleges to manage their own affairs. When David Bell was appointed chief inspector of schools, he made a virtue out of this. Educational institutions didn't want government coming in and telling them what to do. They would be approached with a light touch and left to manage their own affairs.
One of the dangers of that light touch approach is that anxious FE colleges will impose more bureaucratic forms of self-regulation. This is an example of how an empowering approach, using frameworks and systems of regulation, is actually more intrusive. Another danger is that not only the average lecturer but managers and even government lose the sense of being in control.
For the Government this is both a strength, because it is easier for ministers to avoid blame, and a weakness, because authority is devolved.
The seemingly leaderless state of FE is a political product of a new form of government through regulation. It is more controlled than ever, but not by any bosses. Even the very word "boss" seems old-fashioned and offensive in the new egalitarian world of FE.
Ms Clow's committee has toyed with tidying up the chaos of teacher training by putting it entirely in the hands of the Teacher Training Agency. Rumour has it that Ralph Tabberer, the TTA's chief executive, is not so keen, and FE teacher training is probably a poisoned chalice beyond even his not insignificant talents.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think he should take it on, and David Bell should intervene directly. I like the idea of knowing who my boss is and who his or her boss is. Someone should be made minister of state solely for FE so we all know who our boss is. Whether we want to praise or blame them, isn't it better to know who is responsible for FE?
Dr Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for studies in education and work at Canterbury Christ Church university college