At the muddy end of the level playing field

1st December 2000 at 00:00
NOT necessarily for the first time, Accrington and Rossen-

dale College may have something to show the further education sector.

It has come about because of a big building project going on here at the main site. As part of the contract, the construction company has to bring on the earth-movers and the dumper trucks and create what might be called an upgraded football pitch or a developed sports area, but which I call that elusive, almost mythical thing, a level playing field.

We have all been promised one by the legislation which brought us the Learning and Skills Council, but here we will have one of our very own. I can confirm that LPFs are hard to create, expensive to maintain but satisfying to contemplate. There are a number of simple tests, none of them needing a theodolyte, which we will want to apply to David Blunkett's trumpeted LPF.

Number one is about the new inspection regime. Will the rigour with which college performance is to be measured apply in exactly the same way to private training providers?

Some very bland assurances have come from the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate, but no bankable guarantees. Those of us that have been through a joint inspection recently know that at the moment very different standards and criteria, are used.

There is an uneasy feeling that we are not being told the full story. Is there a covert agreement to go easy on the private sector, to give it time to match us? The field may be level but are we destined to play forever into the wind?

Then there is the qualifications issue. Colleges have been told that all teachers who do not yet have a professional qualification must get one. Hooray for that. But does the same rule apply to private training providers, or indeed any other body competing for work in the future, such as universities?

There is both a quality and a cost issue here. If we are the only part of the post-16 world that has to have a fully-qualified staff, on salaries which are that bit higher, to win education or training contracts, we will be at a disadantage. Like trying to play the whole game at the muddy end of the pitch, with the sun in your eyes.

And what about the directors and other members of the boards which guide the private training providers? There is almost no group of people in the public sector which is under more pressure than the members of college corporations. What with the intrusive nature of the enquiries made about their professional and private lives before they are appointed, and then declarations of interests, self-assessment reports and codes of conduct, they are treated by the Government and its agents with deep suspicion.

They are obliged to jump through hoop after hoop while being scrutinised and criticised for their performance. They do all this for no financial reward, in the very honourable tradition of public service in Britain. It does not protect them from vilification if things go pear-shaped.

Can we expect that the directors of private training companies will have to put up with the same degree of unblinking examination, and will have to sign up to the same practices of openness and accountability?

They ought to, given that they will be responsible for large amounts of public money. Unlike governors of colleges, many of these directors will have a direct financial interest in the success of their company, so it could be argued that they need even more rigorous controls, if only to protect themselves from the pointing of unwarranted fingers. and unjustified conclusions.

Even before our building project is complete, people who are used to walking their dogs in the area are marvelling at the smooth, untroubled surface of the new level playing field. Staff of the college, too, look at it as a symbol of the future. But they also wonder whether, when the real activity starts next year, the LPF alone will be sufficient to ensure fair play. Three matters are key: there should be a commonly agreed set of rules; all those involved must be playing the same game; and there must be an independent referee.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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