Poor show for dashing hopes at the 11th hour

5th June 2009 at 01:00

Fiasco is a great word. No one knows its exact etymology - something to do with Italian bottles apparently - but everyone loves using it.

The Conservatives used it several times this week, mostly in relation to the Government, and at least once about the latest twist in the capital cash saga (page 1). David Willetts, shadow skills secretary, said the new development in the "fiasco" was another blow to colleges. What he may not have known is that many saw it coming.

One might have imagined the collective nail-biting of principals across the country as Wednesday approached, in expectation that the Learning and Skills Council would announce which building projects would begin this summer. And then shock and disappointment as Tuesday's letter said the announcement was delayed because so many projects are shovel-ready. The council is not saying how many, although one press report this week put the number at 200.

In fact, many in the sector are not surprised. Having been told that readiness to proceed this summer was the "gateway" to funding approval, principals were asked how shovel-ready their projects were.

And the LSC was surprised by the figure? Principals were probably ringing the council with recordings of cement mixers and pneumatic drills playing in the background.

Now it seems that colleges that are not ready to start work this summer may get funding anyway. Confused? The council hopes to clarify the position soon, though exactly when and how much clarity will be offered remains to be seen.

To be fair to the LSC, deciding who gets what and when was never going to be a straightforward process. College aspirations over capital had been allowed to rise to stratospheric heights just as public funding began its descent to the abyssal depths. Now the Government also wants evidence of value for money.

Just because the hares were ready to start on site, it does not mean their projects are more worthy of funding, or offer better value, than those of the tortoises.

On balance, and however frustrating it is for the sector, the LSC is right to take its time to apply the best fix to this awful mess.

But if the LSC is to make progress, it must continue to improve communications with the sector. Colleges, their staff and learners deserve more consideration than a letter bearing such disappointing news delivered the day before such an important meeting.

Alan Thomson, FE Focus Editor, E: Alan.Thomson@tsleducation.com.

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