Resilient FE must do 'drastic things to cope'
The man charged with helping FE colleges to do "more with less" knows what he's talking about. As Rob Wye starts work as the new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), he does so with a budget that has been halved this year.
But just as he acknowledges that LSIS will have to scale back its operations, he warns that expecting ever-higher quality from colleges facing huge policy upheavals and budget cuts may be unrealistic. For many colleges, avoiding decline is their main ambition.
Mr Wye, former director of strategy and implementation at the Young People's Learning Agency and a career civil servant, says: "There will have to be a lot of focus in how colleges use what they've got in order to maintain the quality of delivery, and it's something the LSIS will have to help them with.
"It's as much of a challenge of maintaining quality as improving quality. The sector will have to transform the way it goes about its business to maintain that quality."
He also says colleges and training providers face a faster rate of change than perhaps ever before, with few areas left untouched by the upheaval of government reforms.
"You're dealing with the disappearance of EMAs, the introduction of loans, changes to the benefit regulations. They are being expected to do quite a lot more with quite a lot less, in a sustained way, over quite a period of time."
Colleges did at least have the advantage of knowing the overall funding position ahead of time, but Mr Wye says that they may have preferred the old days of uncertainty.
"It's always been quite nice for colleges because they couldn't look forward four or five years. Now they can, they're being told the next four or five years looks like this, and it gets worse," he says.
"But FE is fantastically resilient. We know we've got a big challenge and have to do drastic things to cope. People are rising to that in quite extraordinary ways."
He says he believes the Coalition was quite open about wanting to make rapid and fundamental change in education, but admits no one knows what the long-term consequences would be.
"There is an issue you get with a new administration that is always in a hurry. (David) Cameron said this: `The thing I've learned from Tony Blair's book is he didn't do it quickly enough at the beginning; he waited.'
"There is a general push from the top down, and FE, of course, is impacted by several departments, from DfE (Department for Education) and from BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and from DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) for their provision. They're being hit from all angles at the same time. It is very difficult to judge the cumulative impact of that - people are coping very well, but I don't think it's been modelled."
But, if in the face of all this change many colleges will have to focus on holding their ground rather than improving, Mr Wye dismisses the idea of yet another change of identity for LSIS, which has had four incarnations since the 1990s. Calling it the Learning and Skills Maintenance Service "sounds like it's all about spanners," he says.
LSIS's annual budget, which from next month drops to pound;31 million, brings it back to about the level of its predecessor at the time of incorporation, the Further Education Development Agency.
Since then, it became the Learning and Skills Development Agency, split into the Quality Improvement Agency and the Learning and Skills Network (which continues as a charity offering consultancy), and then took on its current form.
Despite a background of rising quality in FE, as judged by success rates that rose from 53 per cent in 1997 to 81 per cent on the most recent figures, the continual overhauls of the quality-improvement body undermined confidence in its contribution.
LSIS had a rocky start, losing its first chief executive, Roger McClure, after just a year. Staff said the merger of the QIA and the Centre for Excellence in Leadership had been botched, describing the culture as "two tribes go to war". Former QIA staff were characterised as "battery hens" churning out government contracts while CEL staff roamed "free range" on programmes of variable quality.
Mr Wye says he intends to build on the strategy of his immediate predecessor, David Collins, the outspoken former principal of South Cheshire College and president of the Association of Colleges, who was credited with steadying the ship. He focused LSIS funding on providers, rather than consultancy firms, to maximise the money that remained within FE, and encouraged the development of provider networks to offer support.
The budget cut from pound;147 million when LSIS launched to pound;31 million next month means its range of programmes will have to be cut. Mr Wye wants to focus on five areas: teaching quality, curriculum development (so providers can respond to greater freedoms offered by government), understanding policy, leadership and management and getting value for money.
"It wasn't until I started working there that I've discovered a whole range of stuff I didn't realise LSIS did," he says. "I can't remember exactly how many `lines' we've got, but the catalogue is long and detailed. People often find it difficult to find exactly what they want."
He is reluctant to name programmes facing the axe, but mentions sustainable development as an example of the range of provision he had been unaware of before joining LSIS. Such programmes may be hard to fit within the five priorities.
Mr Wye says that the approach of LSIS working to a strategy set by providers and directing as much funding for its programmes as possible through them reflects the Government's approach of reducing central control. But if the colleges and training providers are setting the strategy and using each other's expertise, how much longer can LSIS's role as middleman be justified?
The service is held to account through a council whose members come from FE providers. Mr Wye says ISIS will only continue as long as providers believe it offers good value.
"We need that challenge from principals: `You're spending pound;30,000 of my money; if you gave it to me, I could bring in an extra member of staff'. We've got to show that what we do collectively, on behalf of the sector, is having a greater impact than it would if it was spread through the sector more widely," he says.
"If we don't demonstrate that, it is right and proper for the sector to say, `You haven't delivered on your promise of having a greater impact; goodbye LSIS.' We have got to do what they want. If we don't, we deserve to be kicked, hard."
He says LSIS could be funded by subscription from providers on an individual basis rather than a government grant, but it must avoid merely becoming another consultancy.
"It may be that (funding from providers) is where we are headed. The council is a sort of half-way house towards that," he says. "We're the organisation the sector trusts to do things that otherwise wouldn't get done. That's what differentiates us from the bog-standard consultancy. I don't think we ought to be the sort of organisation that should do anything for money."
Mr Wye differs from his predecessor coming from a civil service rather than a college background.
"I think I am generally perceived - I hope this is true - across the sector, as someone who is on their side, who believes in what they're trying to do for learning and skills and in further education. So I don't think that I have that sort of Big Brother reputation. I remember once being accused of being the 240lb gorilla in the room - some radio interviewer said that. But I never felt I was!"
Above all, at a time of great change in FE, Mr Wye hopes to ensure that the quality improvement body gets the stability it has lacked for several years. "I hope one of the things I'm bringing to LSIS is that stability and long-term leadership," he says. "We have had a lot of churn - but I'm here to stay."
Slough Grammar School; first class BAMA in law, Cambridge University
1976-81: Pay policy, health and safety, and disability policy units, Department for Employment
1981-97: Training and vocational education, Manpower Services Commission
1997-2000: Finance director, Department for Education and Skills
2000-2002: Director, Northamptonshire Learning and Skills Council
2002-05: National director of policy and development, LSC
2005-09: Director of strategy and communications, then director of young people's learning, LSC
2009-10: Director of strategy and implementation, Young People's Learning Agency
2011: Chief executive, Learning and Skills Improvement Service.