Let's rethink before we pass thread of control

19th June 2009 at 01:00

No doubt history will judge Gordon Brown more kindly than the press and the electorate have done following the blunders and scandals that have characterised his unhappy period as Prime Minister. The further education sector certainly should.

No previous government ever treated the sector with greater financial generosity than the one in which he served as Chancellor, a period of unprecedented funding for capital developments and student support.

Yet something has gone badly wrong with the overall direction of the sector under Labour. Mr Brown's inexplicable decision, taken without warning or consultation as soon as he became Prime Minister, to divide the running and funding of FE colleges between two departments - innovation, universities and skills (Dius) and children, schools and families - threatened to create chaos. Can we, therefore, take any comfort from the equally abrupt decision, taken during the recent Cabinet restructuring, to abolish Dius?

This latest turn could yet prove to be a blessing, but only if the politically driven decision to restore 16-18 FE funding to local authorities is also abolished.

Perhaps now is the moment to take an honest look at the lessons of the FE sector over the past two decades. Such an assessment would surely conclude that the defining moment in the creation of a vibrant, cost-effective and aspirational FE sector in England took place under the Tories, with incorporation on April 1, 1993.

The patchwork of post-16 institutions previously under the largely nominal control of local authority officers of varying abilities was then placed under the aegis of a national body - the Further Education Funding Council for England (FEFC). There are few who worked with the council - either as employees or within the sector - who do not regard it as one of the most highly professional and effective bodies ever to have been involved in college affairs.

Given that so much had been achieved during the first few years of the council, why did the 1997 Labour government abolish it?

There seemed to be two tenuously related factors. The first was "outward collaborative provision" - popularly termed "franchising". The second was a wholly reasonable desire to save money and avoid duplication by merging the FEFC and the national network of training and enterprise councils (TECs). This was to be achieved by establishing the Learning and Skills Council on April 1, 2001.

Most of us confidently expected the small and cost-effective FEFC, which funded the majority of post-16 learning, to take over the fewer responsibilities of the more expensive TECs. How wrong we were.

Thus, the empowerment, excitement and autonomy of the FEFC era gradually gave way to mind-numbing centralised, bureaucratic number-crunching. In reaction, we face the return of 16-18 funding to local authority control, with all its fragmentation and parochialism, while post-19 funding goes to a new Skills Funding Agency.

Not everything the Tories are proposing is in the interests of FE and its learners, but on the issue of whether colleges operate best under external direction or with autonomy and flexibility, matters are conveniently summarised under the slogan "Bring back the FEFC", promoted by them.

The Association of Colleges is the voice of the sector. Perhaps now is the time, under Martin Doel, its admirable chief executive, to take control of the agenda, shaping what is in the best interests of colleges and learners.

Ted Parker, Principal, Barking College, 1992-2008.

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