Ian Nash finds the future leaders of FE urging rebellion against constant government meddling that hampers their creativity and adds to their costs
Aspiring leaders in FE want government off their backs, and an end to target-driven goals that put the benefits of business first.
Ministers and the Learning and Skills Council may think they have given colleges more freedom and less red tape, but senior lecturers and middle managers have yet to see it.
More than 100 have been invited by The TES to describe in 75 words the one thing they would change in further education if they had the power to do so.
Their responses reveal deep frustration and discontent with the Government's stewardship of post-16 colleges and training centres.
More than half those who responded expressed concerns that managers were too often dictated to by ministers, inspectors, exam boards and other central agencies and that there was too much "change for change's sake".
But FE leaders should challenge policy and set the agenda, said Rania Hafez, lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of East London. "They should do so more often, more consistently and more vociferously, instead of kowtowing to every government edict regardless of its merit, and forcing their staff to jump through every hoop the mandarins hold up."
Continuing demands for change drove many managers to despair. Mandeep Gill, from Richmond-upon-Thames college, listed some: "Curriculum 2000, separation of key skills, citizenship, the Foster report, Tomlinson 14-19, Every Child Matters, the white paper Raising skills improving life chances, applied A-levels, Btec, international baccalaureate, the disability discrimination Act, Entry to Employment, Train to Gain and so on."
He said the money wasted on needless change and handling complicated funding should, instead, be spent on teaching.
The 100-plus aspiring managers and leaders expressing their views will take part in a one-day symposium for tomorrow's leaders next week, hosted by Channel 4 in association with Centre for Excellence in Leadership, The TES and Policy Unplugged - an organisation that helps develops new ways of formulating social policy through open forums and debates on the web.
The event is for "practical visionaries" who care about FE and have ideas about how it can be improved. The one-day event, running alongside CEL's annual conference, will be followed up by continued debate on FE leadership on a dedicated website.
Responses to the question of what to change reveal irritation with data collection that bears little relation to the real world of the classroom and hampers rather than helps good teaching and learning. One aspiring manager said: "FE relies too much on data collection exercises as a guide on performance, comparisons and rankings on a regional and national level."
The solutions offered by respondents are simple and straightforward. They include a stable framework for planning, minimum three-year funding guarantees, more flexibility to meet the needs of individuals and employers, better communications, an end to the tyranny of testing and exams, and a rationalisation of policies that too often contradict one another.
Denise Maguire, a lecturer at Doncaster college, said the benchmarks for excellence around grade A-C passes or distinctions and merits fail to reflect the true successes of teaching One manager, who consulted 30 teachers before responding, summed up the concerns of most people who will take part in the symposium and web debate.
"Short-term policy and target-driven funding has taken its toll on the energy, morale and health of many good people in the FE sector," he said.
"Stabilise policy and funding. The pay structures and conditions of employment for FE teachers should be at least the same as school teachers.
Money being wasted on micro-management of teachers would be better spent on the creation of valued, respected and more autonomous teachers."
Newcomers to FE from industry are astonished at the wasteful system. Chris Lorimer, director of business and marketing at Exeter college, was formerly a consultant with a major bank. His first six months in FE were "a revelation," he said. "There is a huge amount of embedded waste, duplication of activities, manual processes, an overwhelming array of "support organisations" and quangos, all who are supposedly there for the benefit of the students."
Heather Rabbatts, education adviser to Channel 4 and a speaker at the CEL conference, said: "Transition into the world of work and adulthood are major themes as we commission programmes. People in FE have a unique insight into this world and this conference offers us the opportunity to hear directly from them."
Lynne Sedgmore, director of CEL, said: "One of our objectives is to inspire managers and leaders to facilitate a dialogue across the sector - this project is an excellent example of how CEL can contribute."
Steve Moore, director of Policy Unplugged, said: "We want to develop some new narratives for FE that go beyond the debates at conferences year in, year out. We also want to hear the opinions and passions of tomorrow's leaders who will be helping to shape the future FE landscape."
Calling all big mouths
Join the conversation on www.centreforexcellence.org.uk Also, say what one thing you would change in college leadership if you had the power.