Resolve the paradox of partnership for my vote

18th April 1997 at 01:00
There are several issues I would like the incoming government to address, and since all parties seem to share a concern for "education, education and education," in any order, it seems sensible to do so now.

The first is that whoever it is should remember that education does include further education.

After a short burst of the limelight it looks as if we are falling back into obscurity, broken in colleges only by the periodic appearance of official letters beginning: "First I must pay tribute to . . ." and continuing by giving us the latest bad financial news.

The new government really has to make up its mind whether the national targets, and the skills competitiveness of the country at levels 2 and 3 (GCSE and A-level equivalent), are important or not.

The messages are too confused at present. If they are important, let's focus on them and the contribution further education can make. If they aren't important, let's forget them.

But please let us abandon the current paradox in which league tables emphasise the achievements of students who have qualified to progress to level 4, at which the country is doing well competitively, while behind the scenes lip service is paid to the efforts to help more people achieve levels 2 and 3, in which we lag behind.

The next paradox is that everyone is exhorting the sector to speak with one voice and to work together to achieve these very important aims, while the divisions within the sector are underlined.

Why continue to define colleges as general FE and sixth-form colleges? Small tertiaries have more in common with sixth-form colleges than with the FE giants, and sixth-form colleges vary between tertiaries and those which are still sixth forms without a lower school.

Stereotyping gets it wrong for most of us; few of us are the same as we were in 1993. Dividing the sector leads to disgruntlement and squabbling and does none of us any good.

No one kind of college is better than any other; part-time students are not more deserving than full-time students; and one qualification is not more worthwhile than another.

If we are really trying to raise the standards of further education and training for everyone, what we need is the variety of qualifications, modes and places of delivery which will suit all potential students in any particular area.

The next government must resolve the paradox of competition (healthy and nothing to worry about if you're doing a good job) and partnership, currently flavour of the month.

You have to be really gregarious to welcome the number of partners we should be working with.

Some of the so-called partnerships need redefining, too. Are we meant to be working with training and enterprise councils or for them? Are they our partners or our parents? It's an odd partnership in which one party has to sanction the other's strategic plan, and can issue a list of requirements as a condition of endorsement.

Other partnerships are imposed on colleges which want to make bids for funding. This leads to marriages of convenience which neither party wants to become any closer than convention demands.

Another thing I'd like to have revisited is the whole question of bids - for money from the Competitiveness Fund, the Single Regeneration Budget, or Europe. These carry implications which have not been fully recognised.

Colleges set out their strategic aims and objectives for the next three years and their operational plan for the first year. Along comes a bid opportunity carrying its own criteria, demanding partnership as a condition for success and requiring an instant response.

The criteria may be consistent with the college's mission, but may still force the college to pervert its immediate priorities to accommodate them. If the bid has to be made through a third party, it may add its own interpretation to the criteria and confuse matters still further. It also reduces even more the time available to prepare the bid.

The reference to paying tribute to us in the official letters usually prefaces praise for the way in which we have all expanded. Indeed it has been the only way we have been able to remain solvent so far. But many of us are now full.

We have restructured our accommodation imaginatively so that we can take on many more full-time students than we were originally intended to have. We can even scatter a few adults around during the day. But the learning centres are now full, and the erstwhile social areas and the canteen are also used for studying.

We need to build if we are to continue to expand and take on those who wish to come to us. Why can't we? Because it is assumed that PFI will help us with the costs. Why should any privately-financed business want to sponsor a new building in the backyard of a small college? There are bigger and better projects to appeal to bodies with money to invest.

So, those of you who aspire to govern us, will you look again at PFI and the bidding process? Will you clarify what you really want from us, and think of us all as colleges in the FE sector? If you're willing to do all this, you've certainly got my vote.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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