Seven-year hitch blows the LSC cover story

29th September 2000 at 01:00
After an extensive study of college strategic plans, can categorically declare that the new FE quango has a limited life span.

The season of mists has become the season of fog. College strategic plans - never models of clarity and firmness of purpose - are due in to the FEFC now. The latest version will need added chapters on disaster planning - how to cope if the bottom unexpectedly falls out of your funding body - and to set a course through some pretty unchartable waters. There are, of course, helpful guidelines on how to get it right.

Ignore them. The one thing they don't help with is the only aspect of your plan you cannot afford to get wrong: the front cover. After all, it's as close as most staff will get to reading it and its impressiveness could well determine whether a funding council official checks it for internal consistency - disaster! - or simply files it under 'not wanted on voyage' - success!

So, the cover is important. What for example, are the dates on the front? Is this the last update of a three-year plan, 1998-2001, or is it looking forward to 2003. These are important matters. If the plan represents the end of a three-year period, you'll need a very hefty chunk devoted to explaining why you didn't meet any of your objectives, what you've spent the FEFC's clawback on and why you missed your student-number target by such a woeful amount. The second biggest section will need to explain why you have abandoned all previous objectives in favour of what look suspiciously like panic measures in response to the FEFC's increasingly flexible and dynamic approach to setting the funding rules.

Take my advice. Make every plan the first of a new three-year cycle; that way your plan looks bang up to date all the time and you don't have any of the tiresome business of explaining why you got everything so hopelessly wrong in forecasting the future from the remote past of 1998.

There are exceptions to this rule. If you are going to make your plan relate to the past, do it in a big way. I once saw a plan from a college of land-based industries that started its needs analysis in 1582 and blamed its failure to recruitnational-diploma students inagriculture on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, both World Wars and the Treaty of Rome. I think the college is closed now.

Of course, plans are about the future and your front cover should reflect what you think is in store. So you might expect o find a page celebrating the arrival of the Learning and Skills Council. I think you should think bigger than that. Go for broke and plan for its replacement body - in about seven years' time on current trends. I came to this audacious conclusion as I worked through alternative cover designs. So strategic planningreally works, you see.

My first draft cover was called Metamorphosis and was based on the Franz Kafka novella in which the hero, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning transformed into a giant beetle, with his hundred legs waving impotently in the air. Life is suddenly full of new challenges for Gregor, the first of which is to get off his back. In the end he dies of neglect, indifference, and casual abuse - scruffy, uncared for and completely forgotten.

There is much speculation on the meaning of the symbolism, but it's clear to me that Kafka knew a lot about further education. He also wrote about sprawling bureaucracies - secretive, impenetrable, inflexible and unresponsive - finally destroying those they were set up to serve. Lets hope he doesn't turn out to know a lot about the LSC, too.

Then I went for Deep Thought, the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, set up, like the LSC, to provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. The answer was simple: 42. But it needed a subsequent, more powerful computer to explain why. And the skills council is being set up because somebody thinks there are simple answers to fiendishly difficult questions. And it will be closed down when it becomes obvious there are not.

The whole business is just like the cliche of climbing a hill: you think you've reached the top only to see yet another peak ahead. You make the extra effort because the view will be superb, but it turns out to be just another false summit. We staggered past Local Management of Colleges, on towards the FEFC and now have to haul ourselves up to the LSC.

The funding council was set up to free colleges from acentralised planning culture. And now the skills council is about to put it back. In seven years' time it's odds on that something will be needed to save us from the rigid, bureaucratic shambles of this latest attempt to plan skills provision on too big a scale. But what? That's where my new strategic plan cover comes in. I'vefinally settled on a picture of Richard Branson in a Che Guevara beret.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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