Partnerships to control worst excesses of market forces

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Have you made it in public life? I offer three possible tests. Have you featured in a cartoon? Have you had your first name in a newspaper headline of the type "Maggie quits" or "Gordon hesitates; shares tumble"? Or, the ultimate accolade, has something been named after you?

Helena Kennedy, herself recently renamed Baroness Kennedy, deserves more than just having her report being named after her.

Learning Works provides one of the most exciting and radical visions for the future of further education. Its publication was too close to Sir Ron Dearing's report to get the publicity it deserved. Yet - leaving aside the obvious issue of acute under-funding - the least commented-upon sections, dealing with strategic planning and governance, deserve immediate attention.

The previous government' s biggest mistake in FE was to remove any form of strategic planning. The Tories believed the competitive marketplace alone would deliver But, despite the sector's many triumphs, competition has led to numerous problems. In places there has been wasteful duplication of effort while elsewhere much needed courses have been axed.

Potential students have found it difficult to access information about courses and routes available to them. Colleges have used hard-pressed budgets to fund advertising campaigns or offer sweeteners to attract new students.

Excessive competition has hit the media, like the London Evening Standard story headlined "Police called in as college rivals clash over recruits".

Without strategic planing we no longer know who is responsible for that. David Melville, the Further Education Funding Council chief executive, recently confirmed that the council has a legal duty "to ensure that there are sufficient further education opportunities for young people and adults in every part of the country" but it does not have responsibility for strategic planning of the FE sector.

It cannot insist on college mergers. Other than with the carrot of finance, it has no say in what courses are run by any institution.

The latest FEFC projections on the financial health of colleges are extremely worrying. An unprecedented number of colleges, some 57 per cent, are either financially vulnerable or weak - up from just 30 per cent three years ago.

Yet, although the FEFC provides 70 per cent of colleges' total income, it is not responsible for their financial health. Who is?

All this, together with significant concerns about the governance of individual colleges, means we must have a complete rethink about power, responsibility and accountability in the FE sector.

Of course we should not return to the old days of local education authority control. I welcome the devolution of power and responsibility to individual colleges, provided that we re-establish democratic and transparent accountability to local communities in governing bodies.

Further, we must have a strategic planning framework for the sector at a regional level, with democratic input.

Ideally, responsibility for further education should lie within regional government. But until such a tier of government is established, greater powers over funding should be transferred from central government and the national FEFC to the nine regional committees. Those committees should be reconstituted to comprise representatives of the colleges, local authorities, employers and training and enterprise councils.

Effective regional strategic planning would improve value for money and avoid undue course duplication and the corresponding dog-eat-dog competition between colleges. It could lead to funds being made available to run courses which, while not necessarily financially viable, are vital to meet local economic and skill needs.

It would restore a degree of partnership and co-operation and make it easier to share good ideas. We would know who to praise, blame or lobby.

In calling for local partnerships, Helena Kennedy has started the ball rolling. Already numerous college bids have been made to form the first pathfinder partnerships.

In the jargon, they're already called Kennedy partnerships. The name should stick; she deserves that at least.

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