Letters from civil servants have an unerring way of quickly becoming received wisdom

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Letters from civil servants have an unerring way of quickly becoming received wisdom. One day's circular can become set in stone the next.

Schools saw this with the recent Department for Education and Skills letter that started out as an advice note and was seen as a curtailment of governors' powers to hire and fire staff.

There is, therefore, an understandable nervousness over the latest missive to drop quietly on the doormats of college governors. This announced that the Department would shortly be reviewing governance arrangements in FE.

The DfES insists it is a tidying up exercise following Success for All and other policy changes. However, it reads like anything but. The purpose of the review, it says, is to make sure governance arrangements "are fit to deal with the current challenges facing the sector".

Colleges should not be surprised that the Government wants a review.

Indeed, given the shift to more strategic planning and partnerships between colleges and industry, ministers must be more interventionist. Nor are colleges perfect. Some are not responding to new policy - or not quickly enough.

But this DfES letter shows an alarming lack of understanding of the pressures on the armies of over-stretched, willing, part-timers who govern colleges. Sent out on October 7, it suggested a considerable range of areas for review then called for responses in less than three weeks.

Few colleges have been able to convene meetings in time to do the demands justice. Instead, the letter has demoralised governors and created fears that ministers and officials have already made up their minds and are simply going through the motions.

Ground rules were recently drafted in a report, Trust in FE, to help improve relationships among colleges, employers and government agencies such as the Learning and Skills Council. Ministers and civil servants should read it and play by the same rules.

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