Reasons to be cheerful about diversity

15th June 2001 at 01:00
I spent an interesting fortnight in May trying to rescue a college. Ealing Tertiary College has been "causing concern" for longer than anyone cares to remember. In its final throes, the Further Education Funding Council moved in an acting principal and set wheels in motion for the inevitable merger. Concerned that the only college in Ealing might be taken over by another with no base in the borough, I asked my directors if there was anything we could do to help. This turned out to be a profound question.

Under the new regime, the Learning and Skills Council is not limited to supporting traditional college corporations, and I received a helpful reply from the then Education and Employment minister Baroness Blackstone, that we could, indeed, make a bid to turn things around. From discussions with local partners and employers emerged a "prospectus" from Ealing Council and Thames Valley University. While this was eventually scuppered by the FEFC process (from beyond the grave, by this time), it remains an interesting idea, and I'm glad we suggested it.

More to the point, it started something of a national debate. The LSC in Coventry seemed interested in the idea of diverse local solutions, and officials in the department confirmed that a more mixed economy was sought. Indeed, the significance was noted in TES coverage.

Let me be clear: we did not wish to take the tertiary college back into direct local education authority control. Indeed, central to our prospectus was a strengthened college corporation.

Even so, I was shocked by the speed with which ranks closed at the very suggestion of managing a college through a partnership led by the LEA. I did not expect the somersaults that prevented the Ealing CouncilTVU proposal even from being considered.

And I was ready for a rigorous process. I hadn't realised quite how embryonic the LSC organisation and accountability is at local level.

So I want to take this opportunity to make the case. I think it boils down to this question: "Why should colleges want councils to have a stake in them?" I can think of three good reasons: First, funding and inspecting all post-16 education through the same coherent framework has to be a good thing. In time, it will prevent wasteful and pointless competition between schools and colleges in the GNVQ and A-level market. Moreover, it allows for better routes between school and 16-plus.

Universities are often represented on college boards, because the supply-chain logic is obvious. By the same argument, if we are serious about coherent plans for 14 to 19-yar-olds, joint planning by local authorities, LSC branches and colleges looks inescapable.

Second, there is the broader local picture. For a time it was fashionable to pretend colleges were multinational companies, dealing in a currency called "units" and franchising courses around the globe. Wise players always recognised that the core business was local qualifications for local people, but the LSC adds a sharp new focus to the "skills agenda". It is now about getting people into (preferably high-value) jobs.

Together with business and community partners, councils lead on local economic development - which in turn shapes local jobs markets. Local authorities co-ordinate the partnerships that deliver Single Regeneration Budget-funded, joined-up strategies to build local employment capacity. And local authorities manage delivery of careers services in many parts of the country. All of this must surely add value to the system.

Third, there is the sub-regional agenda. Partnerships exist beyond council boundaries. The West London Alliance, for example, covers the same boroughs as the local arm of the LSC (handy, that) and has long-established plans at a "sub-regional" level.

This includes agreeing a transport strategy that can handle the M40 and the M4, Heathrow Airport (the largest point of entry to the UK) and co-ordinate public transport for an economy the size of Frankfurt. Oh yes, and develop a tram system linking a string of High Streets and boroughs between Uxbridge and Shepherds Bush. So what? Our forte is working in partnership, with a range of specialists, on both a huge scale (such as the NHS) and a very local one. We are big players in local economic development and social inclusion. Plus we are major-league providers of education in our own right. I believe we can bring a lot to the learning and skills party - if we are invited.

And what of the ETC merger? The plans for a devolved college covering Hammersmith and Ealing look imaginative and positive. There will be details to hammer out, but I look forward to working with the incoming management team to resolve them - together - in the interests of learners in our area.

In fact, I like to think that Ealing Council's local adventure may have stimulated some of this thinking. But I am left pondering a couple of questions: Can the LSC change the old-style FE culture? And are colleges really ready to re-engage with the rest of the world?

Gillian Guy is chief executive of Ealing Council, and a member of the board of the London West Learning and Skills Council

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