Pass blocked off

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Guidance on franchising puts colleges in a fine mess, says Vince Hall

Let's head them off at the pass! How many times as a child did I hear that phrase in cowboy films. It came back into my mind when I picked up the latest Further Education Funding Council circular, 9606. For readers who are not into trainspotting or memorising the numbers of FEFC circulars, 9606 is about franchising.

The comments in last week's TES were mixed on this long-awaited circular, but missed the central point, which was that it was yet another unacknowledged policy shift from FEFC in Coventry. You would think that as a member of the FEFC's franchising working group, which was advising on policy issues, I would be able to explain the details of the circular to colleagues who have rung me, but I can't take any responsibility for some of it.

The FEFC actually has a good record of setting up working groups to advise on policy development. Practitioners are brought in to work with officers of the FEFC to develop policy and guidance on emerging issues within the sector. The working group for franchising was set up last summer and had four meetings from June to November, but has not met since. The group was scheduled to meet in March to look at feedback on a draft circular before the final edition went out to advise colleges on recruitment policy for 199697.

The group's terms of reference were to: * identify the different types of franchising arrangements mainly for further education being developed in the sector; * identify key issues; * recommend to the FEFC the acceptability or otherwise of the different practice for franchise arrangements; * prepare guidance on good practice, including a number of case studies, and to recommend its publication to the FEFC.

What became obvious early on was that there were two major issues involved which went way beyond the capacity of the group. The first was the question of the ability of FE institutions to franchise sixth-form arrangements to schools that did not have a sixth form.

Within the FE sector, colleges were sharply split between the hawks and the planners as to whether this kind of franchise was desirable, never mind legal. As the head of a tertiary college, the unrestrained establishment of sixth-form provision was not something that I welcomed. It seemed to me to make a nonsense of local planning for the post-16 age group and to bring up again the opting out debates in a different guise.

This also seemed to be the view of the senior officials in the old Department for Education. They wanted to head off the FE outlaws at the pass, here by going back to the primary legislation. Yet many principals claimed that they were only operating within the new enterprise culture urged on them by Government and some funding council senior staff.

Also controversial was the idea of franchising out to companies and private training organisations. While again colleges had differing views of the desirability of major franchises and some almost came to blows over apparent unprincipled poaching in neighbouring areas, it was seen by many as the answer to the dash for growth implicit in the first three years of the funding methodology. However, the officials from the former Department of Employment were not amused.

To some of them it seemed that colleges were crashing around in an area that should be left to their friends in training and enterprise councils. Their vision of blocking off colleges was to get the lawyers to check whether FE institutions were legally able to make the arrangements.

Rumour says that the FEFC had to fight pressure from some quarters of the Department for Education and Employment to test the legality of some franchises. Instead, I am led to believe, behind closed doors, without the advice of the franchising working group, FEFC officials hammered out tough guidance in the circular which could make the operation of many major franchises impossible.

This leaves those colleges who were encouraged to dive into franchising in a very difficult position, in a sector where many colleges are having problems surviving. If you read the circular, you would not see any of this, only the seamless robe of apparently logical policy development.

Maybe it is my fanciful imagination from watching too many movies. But many of my colleagues would take another phrase from my youthful cinema-going days - that's another fine mess you got us into!

Vince Hall is the principal of Dewsbury College

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