Reduction in red tape? Don't hold your breath

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Remember the recent reports commissioned by the Government to cut duplication and bureaucracy in FE? One remedy was clearer delineation of the roles of the various bodies concerned with FE. It was said that the Learning and Skills Council was to fund provision and the inspectorates would assess quality.

The LSC has clearly forgotten this. In July 2006, it published its Framework For Excellence, which proposes a "comprehensive performance assessment framework" for FE. Far from cutting red tape, the LSC, the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted are trying to "cap" the latest performance measures introduced by their fellow agencies. The LSC now wants to overlay its seven "key performance indicators" leading to three grades that will give an overall rating for each college. This is serious and could result in a withdrawal of funding or forced "merger of the institution with a stronger supplier".

In case you still hoped for a "level playing field", the framework will not apply to school sixth forms because their performance data comes by "other means". The same could be said about FE colleges, which are subject to the requirements of the agencies that have a stake in it. LSC-funded provision is subject to annual assessment by Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate and periodic full inspections. Most FE colleges have provision for 14 to 16s that is subject to scrutiny by Ofsted, the DfES and local authorities. Higher education in FE colleges is now to be reviewed by the Quality Assurance Agency of the Higher Education Funding Council on top of the requirements of validating and franchising universities. Colleges with Train to Gain contracts are expected to achieve the Quality Mark, with its own list of performance indicators. Then there are measures for work-based learning, the national benchmarks for success, retention, achievement, and the DfES league tables for 16 to 18 education.

The various FE-related agencies all focus on similar aspects of college provision, but the measures are all slightly different and have to be met in the shape and form required by the particular body.

The relatively small size of an FE college means the diverse provision is generally managed by the same staff. A typical department of business studies or catering, for example, will be responsible for provision for 14 to 16-year-olds, people with learning difficulties, full-time 16 to 18s, HE students on foundation degrees and so on, and for all adult classes in communities across a wide area.

It is the same managers who have to ensure that the needs of the various agencies are met in the correct format and by the specified deadline. The variety of the performance measures is bewildering, yet it is critical that all staff understand the measures and how to apply them. Only then can they "take ownership" of weaknesses, draw up action plans and work on "continuous improvements".

All this detracts from the core business of recruiting students, teaching, learning and assessment. The focus should be on the process of self-assessment itself, and on planning how to improve, not on helping staff to learn and apply the latest measures.

The Foster report said colleges are pulled in too many directions, that FE never says "no", is not allowed to stop doing one thing before it has to do another, and that this is how duplication and red tape has built up. Yet the LSC does not seem to be proposing that the Framework For Excellence should replace the existing performance measures or quality assurance processes. Its template for responding to the consultation on the proposed framework (true to form) does not ask the necessary question: do we really need this?

Sue Carroll is deputy principal at Hertford Regional College

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