One screw short of a funding plan

12th November 2004 at 00:00
"Locate knurled spigot (B) into flange groove (D), taking care that panel (B) is facing east and the self-tapping spring nut is not protruding by more than it should (see Troubleshooting)."

I don't know about you, but just the word "locate" makes me tremble with anxiety when I come across it in self-assembly instructions. Why on earth do I continue to let hope triumph over experience and spend yet more Sunday mornings in flat-pack hell? Why do I go to wretched furniture emporia in the first place when I know it is all a con from start to finish?

It is no surprise that these self-assembly merchants make fat profits. The customer has to collect the stuff from the shelves, deliver it to himself free of charge and then assemble it. And what does the retailer - let's call it MFIKEA - Jdo? It drills holes in the wrong place and mangles the English in the assembly instructions. And you can't take anything back because you've split the wood trying to force the angle sprocket onto the bracket spine and, anyway, the store is 50 miles away up a gridlocked M6.

But the classic urban myth about these things, no less true for being a myth, is that there is always a bit missing. Sometimes it's just a screw of a unique size and shape, and sometimes it's something major like all the wooden bits. Quite often it's the grammar in the assembly diagrams.

But I should be used to it. After all, I live and work in FE where everything has a bit missing, isn't what it appeared in the showroom and has its wheels fall off if you push it too hard. Take the new policy of "Trust in FE". It looked great in the showroom when the spotlight was on it. It should have been simple enough to put together, but there is a bit missing. The trust.

So the end of clawback doesn't mean the end of clawback, and the reduced audit burden might well turn out to be increased audit burden. We've been told to locate the external Individual Learner Record (ILR) audit in the hole created in the internal audit plan and, making sure we keep straight faces, gently lower the regularity audit (B) into the gap left by ILR audit (A).

Still, MFIKEA has nothing on Her Majesty's Government when it comes to selling wonky products. Like you, I have applauded at conferences as Blunkett, Morris and Clarke (what a great name for a firm of taxidermists) have each, in their turn, told us of the squillions of new pounds they are pouring into our coffers. You get the promise home, unpack it, try to make it stack up and then discover that there is, of course, a missing bit. The money.

And where are we with the Learning and Skills Council's planned FE economy? We have Strategic Area Reviews with everything in the pack but the strategy. We have plan-led funding with only three elements missing ... it isn't planned, we aren't led and there's no funding. On the other hand, we have the very non-MFIKEA style Ofsted. The most elegant set of instructions ever, a highly complex product delivered to your home, you don't collect because no one would bother, and, also unlike MFIKEA, it's extremely expensive. But there's still a bit missing. The point.

But as usual, I am exaggerating and being unfair. There is planning afoot.

In the old days, when colleges were thought capable of a skills development strategy, we produced a needs analysis which tried to identify the training and learning needs of the communities we served. Most colleges, allegedly, looked at their prospectuses and then wrote their needs analysis to justify doing the same again.

This made us unresponsive, we were told, and is obviously not good enough for the employer engagement brigade in charge of planning for skills development now. We have just received a National Employers Skills Survey 2003 from the LSC. It is 232 pages of facts, figures, graphs, charts, analysis and dense text. Some of it is readable, and other bits are as clear as a teenager's bedroom. It is undoubtedly a major piece of work and a triumph of sorts in a field where earlier efforts have been too little, too late and too obvious.

Even though I am in the West Midlands, it tells me everything I wanted to know, and some things I didn't, about skills shortages in Surrey compared with Newcastle. It explains the subtle difference between a "hard to fill" vacancy and "skill shortage" vacancy. One is hard to fill and the other even harder, apparently. It helpfully clarifies for me the differences between Ness2003 and Ess2001, something which had been puzzling me for some time. It is accompanied by a letter which expresses the hope that this resource will "inform your plans to deliver better training and workforce development that meet the needs of employers and individuals."

And, of course, it could. But I've looked in the parcel it came in, scoured the floor underneath my desk and checked in the post room. Guess what. I can't find the damned instructions anywhere.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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