Lesson from the beautiful game
Is this because we have failed to put across our own strategy for success? If this is the reason, we need to consider what our own proposals would look like. One thing is clear: any suggestions must raise our profile with the public and bring in cash from business. But, unlike the present reforms, we could come clean about our commitment to competition.
Over the past 10 years, the Football Association has done a great job in raising the quality and reputation of the game in the UK. The making of football into something like a national religion offers valuable lessons to inspire new vision in post-16 provision.
First, scrap the big table that ranks all colleges together. What good is it to parents or students to know that the tech down the road is 426th in the country? Grouping colleges in leagues is the way to go. There could be a premiership of, say, 80 top-flight colleges, followed by a champions' league, then leagues one, two and three - with about 100 colleges. In regional leagues, the remaining colleges could be encouraged to seek local support to help them up.
Reaching the top will not be all that matters. Staying there will be what counts. In this structure, it is hard to imagine a need for the Learning and Skills Council to intervene. In the endeavour to climb to the top of the league tables, no college will be able to do without a great team of lecturers. But it is difficult to identify who is of premier-league quality. Schools can scout for teachers who have passed through the threshold or are advanced skills teachers, and soon they will be able to spot "excellent teachers".
But in FE, the only distinction will soon be between subject coaches and the super-trained. It would be so much easier to identify talent if the contracts were more flexible and performance-related. Colleges could then be allowed to use their resources to pay lecturers according to their worth, and opportunities of transfers will be encouraged.
For prospective clients, this model will make understanding the choices on offer much clearer. They could call the local college and ask: "Which premier-league colleges have your lecturers worked for?" For teachers, the prestige of being able to compare themselves to the likes of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard will be great for morale. And no one is saying they would need to be on pound;100,000 a week. As long as they got results, their form-filling expertise could be left on the sidelines.
Building on these changes, colleges must try to win financial commitment from multinationals or billionaires such as Roman Abramovich or Malcolm Glazer. There are quite a few business chiefs - not to mention football club chairmen -who would like to add a college to their list of companies.
Big bosses of this kind know more than anybody that in a competitive environment you have to trust and support the players on the pitch.
This will be to lecturers' advantage and, following the football model, successful staff could be given a shot at management. They will know more about effective point-scoring in exams than any boss brought in from outside.
College culture may be transformed. But when the rewards start rolling in, who will worry about the competitive approach? So, colleges could have headline-hitting reforms with lecturers as the stars.
We would have to trust that quality education is judged by exam scores and that in a free market what we have to choose from is really a free choice.
But we've been run in the belief that this is the way to preserve a level playing field since incorporation.
In that case, to improve our status and gain a bit of recognition, perhaps it's about time we came out of the locker-room proudly, wearing our strips and playing hard for the glory of the game and in praise of marketplace methods. Either that or accept that within our current FE structure, the role of lecturers is never likely to be taken seriously.
Nigel Newton is a lecturer and educational researcher,New college, Swindon