Let's lift FE beyond the reach of the unaccountable boards

13th April 2012 at 01:00
Further education belongs in the hands of elected politicians and must be shaped locally by those who deliver and receive it

Any reader of Tom Kelly's article "Griggs brings two guarantees - upheaval and uncertainty" (24 February) will have finished his moving defence of the current governance arrangements in Scottish further education with lips quivering and tear-filled eyes. Apparently, a completely unprovoked attack has been launched by Russel Griggs to "demean the hundreds of people who have served on college boards of management". We are told this stalwart band of heroes has "delivered good, if not perfect, public service throughout Scotland", which is "the envy of other parts of the UK".

Griggs' review does not "demean" individuals. It recognises faults in the system of running FE, which Tom describes, strangely, as the "community college sector". Community college? At least he admits that the current system was "a Thatcherite idea", its key point being precisely to remove any control by the community over the college sector.

Incorporation was an act of political spite by a party losing its voters in Scotland and determined to salvage something from this wreckage by handing FE to its pals in business. The result has been a Balkanised sector which lacks any coherent strategy and is subject to the whims of individual boards and principals who are not accountable to anyone, least of all the community.

There is a notable lack of concrete evidence in Tom's piece, however. So, here is some help with data. His definition of "good, if not perfect" may refer to the way the number of frontline lecturers has been falling (down 12 per cent from 1999-2007), while cross-college posts have risen by 16 per cent.

Some people may well envy the way senior management grew by 28 per cent in the same period. And there is a lot to be jealous of, since the salary bill for this top layer has been racing away from the rest of the employees. In one typical college, between 2000 and 2008 the salary of the principalship rose by 73 per cent, with the cost of the senior management team not far behind. If a well-paid bureaucracy is your criterion for success, then indeed this is near perfection.

Tom says "harrumph" to the idea of national bargaining. Perhaps the rest of the UK covets our industrial relations record, where over a 10-year period there have been 3.5 times the number of strike days there were in British education in general. They might admire the vast sums spent by managements victimising individual lecturers (for such heinous crimes as being trade union or health and safety reps and the like). To be fair, Tom does not claim perfection for all boards but let's list just some of the train wrecks in this area - Adam Smith, Ayr, Central, Carnegie, James Watt, Motherwell, Telford. Nor is everything coming up roses in Angus.

Perhaps the greatest indictment of the current system of governance is the abject failure of boards and principals to say anything about the disastrous impact that funding cuts will have on the sector. At a time of record youth unemployment, SUMs targets were reduced in 2011-12 by 5.7 per cent. For 2012-13, targets are down a further 8.5 per cent, meaning fewer students will get the education they deserve.

The EIS asked every management for a joint statement protesting at these cuts - in vain. For 20 years, the current system of governance for FE has been driven by a business agenda directed towards creating surpluses and laying down reserves. The first option, each and every time any financial issue arises, has been to reduce teaching staff. So we did not nurse great expectations, but hoped that some regard to maintaining the education service for our youngsters remained among those charged with the guardianship of FE. Alas, all the energy seems to be directed to self- preservation of boards and principals, not to educational survival. Tom Kelly's argument seems to be "if it ain't bust, don't change it". Well, it is bust!

That does not mean we think everything in the Griggs review is fine. There are many areas that could be improved upon. For example, his version of regionalisation is very "top down". The EIS supports regionalisation as a means of creating some coherence, but also retaining local input which can restore a degree of democratic accountability from the bottom up. That is why we were so disappointed to see that the recommended regional board includes only one staff rep (as opposed to the two - lecturing and support staff reps - on the current 41 boards).

The sector should be driven by educational concerns, and so we want to see a new framework. That means lifting FE beyond the reach of unaccountable college boards and their principals to introduce overall strategic direction by elected politicians. But at the same time FE should also be shaped locally by the views of those who deliver and receive education. Putting Learners at the Centre must surely take into account those who have the most content and knowledge of their educational needs. Democratic regional structures can deliver that and we wish Griggs had gone further in that direction.

We have a fear. An unfortunate scenario would be one which sees the government establishing regional boards, but also caving in to people like Tom Kelly who are lobbying hard to retain what is left of their fiefdoms. That way we end up with no more than yet another tier of bureaucracy. Governance is an important issue, but for the student, the key is not which board runs their college, but whether they have a course and a lecturer to teach it, and that is the element of "upheaval and uncertainty" which Tom Kelly should be objecting to, not Griggs.

Donny Gluckstein is convenor of salaries and conditions of service sub- committee, EIS Further Education Lecturers' Association. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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