Starry-eyed over path to perfection

11th August 2006 at 01:00
It is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the huge honour recently bestowed on the FE sector by the Government.

FE colleges have been identified as the first sector considered able to eliminate unsatisfactory performance. What is more, they are able to do so as soon as 2008.

After that date there will still be the occasional school failure, MRSA will still lurk in the odd ward, and doubtless there will be a cock-up or two in the Home Office. But FE will have attained a state not yet seen in any other sector - the total elimination of poor performance.

When the then education secretary Ruth Kelly first announced this extraordinary news last year, there was surprisingly little reaction.

Perhaps we had misheard. But now it has been confirmed in the Quality Improvement Strategy recently unveiled by the Quality Improvement Agency.

"There will be no poor or under-performing provision after 2008." What a breathtaking vote of confidence in the sector. What staggering self-belief in the organisation chosen to lead its delivery.

The QIS sets out a fourfold path to this educational nirvana:

* "Partnership - no organisation can succeed alone;

* "Enterprising leadership - no organisation can improve without a lead from the top;

* "Self-improvement - no external organisation can impose improvement;

* "Excellence - no organisation should settle for the average."

It is clear that these principles are to be treated as liturgy rather than literal truth. Consider partnership, for example. While it is trivially true, in that an organisation cannot ever exist alone, the evidence for the beneficial effect of partnerships is, to put it mildly, thin. Or leadership: while good leaders can certainly help - and bad leaders hinder - it is not just wrong but insulting to suggest that only leaders can initiate progress. Was improvement on HMS Bounty initiated by Captain Bligh? Were the reforms in Romania led from the top?

The fourth principle comes dangerously close to demanding that we should all be above average - and we clearly can't. Even when we reach the blessed state where poor performance has been eliminated, half of all providers will still be below average. Perhaps, therefore, we are meant to treat this like a Zen koan: the FE equivalent of contemplating the sound of one hand clapping.

It is probably true that no external organisation can impose improvement, but the Department for Education and Skills has been perilously close to demonstrating that one can certainly get in the way. The Learning and Skills Council has been working hard with partners to develop its Framework for Excellence - an integrated approach to monitoring and measuring provider performance. The principal authors share with the QIA a vision of self-improvement where providers take the major responsibility for driving up quality. It is built around rigorous and honest self-assessment, looking at how to do better rather than apportioning blame. Yet, as early feedback shows, the whole enterprise risked being poisoned from the outset by the DfES's dogmatic insistence that it should be built around a simple star-rating system. Five stars for excellent; anything under three stars less than average and therefore presumably suspect.

The Government's line is that a simple star rating helps consumers judge quality. If it did that it just might be worth the damage it would do to honest self-assessment and the fact that colleges would be driven to chase stars rather than drive up quality. But it doesn't. The stars would be based on three things: success rates, which are a reasonable proxy for quality much of the time; sound financial management or whether the books balance; and responsiveness which these days means offering the courses the Government thinks should be offered. As a consumer, I am only interested in the first. When choosing a restaurant I am interested in the quality and price of the food, not whether the cook is putting aside enough money for his pension and certainly not whether the Government has approved the menu.

Following an outcry from principals it seems that the Government is having second thoughts about pressing on, from dodgy dossiers to suspect stars. Like the ill-judged intervention on performance-related funding, that gave more resources to precisely those colleges that had demonstrated they needed them least, it would provide employment for bean counters and benefit few others. In the consultative document, published by the LSC last month, a star system is downgraded to "one option under consideration". We should celebrate an outbreak of common sense, or perhaps the realisation that after 2008 we will all have stars.

Mick Fletcher is an education consultant

It is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the huge honour recently bestowed on the FE sector by the Government.

FE colleges have been identified as the first sector considered able to eliminate unsatisfactory performance. What is more, they are able to do so as soon as 2008.

After that date there will still be the occasional school failure, MRSA will still lurk in the odd ward, and doubtless there will be a cock-up or two in the Home Office. But FE will have attained a state not yet seen in any other sector - the total elimination of poor performance.

When the then education secretary Ruth Kelly first announced this extraordinary news last year, there was surprisingly little reaction.

Perhaps we had misheard. But now it has been confirmed in the Quality Improvement Strategy recently unveiled by the Quality Improvement Agency.

"There will be no poor or under-performing provision after 2008." What a breathtaking vote of confidence in the sector. What staggering self-belief in the organisation chosen to lead its delivery.

The QIS sets out a fourfold path to this educational nirvana:

* "Partnership - no organisation can succeed alone;

* "Enterprising leadership - no organisation can improve without a lead from the top;

* "Self-improvement - no external organisation can impose improvement;

* "Excellence - no organisation should settle for the average."

It is clear that these principles are to be treated as liturgy rather than literal truth. Consider partnership, for example. While it is trivially true, in that an organisation cannot ever exist alone, the evidence for the beneficial effect of partnerships is, to put it mildly, thin. Or leadership: while good leaders can certainly help - and bad leaders hinder - it is not just wrong but insulting to suggest that only leaders can initiate progress. Was improvement on HMS Bounty initiated by Captain Bligh? Were the reforms in Romania led from the top?

The fourth principle comes dangerously close to demanding that we should all be above average - and we clearly can't. Even when we reach the blessed state where poor performance has been eliminated, half of all providers will still be below average. Perhaps, therefore, we are meant to treat this like a Zen koan: the FE equivalent of contemplating the sound of one hand clapping.

It is probably true that no external organisation can impose improvement, but the Department for Education and Skills has been perilously close to demonstrating that one can certainly get in the way. The Learning and Skills Council has been working hard with partners to develop its Framework for Excellence - an integrated approach to monitoring and measuring provider performance. The principal authors share with the QIA a vision of self-improvement where providers take the major responsibility for driving up quality. It is built around rigorous and honest self-assessment, looking at how to do better rather than apportioning blame. Yet, as early feedback shows, the whole enterprise risked being poisoned from the outset by the DfES's dogmatic insistence that it should be built around a simple star-rating system. Five stars for excellent; anything under three stars less than average and therefore presumably suspect.

The Government's line is that a simple star rating helps consumers judge quality. If it did that it just might be worth the damage it would do to honest self-assessment and the fact that colleges would be driven to chase stars rather than drive up quality. But it doesn't. The stars would be based on three things: success rates, which are a reasonable proxy for quality much of the time; sound financial management or whether the books balance; and responsiveness which these days means offering the courses the Government thinks should be offered. As a consumer, I am only interested in the first. When choosing a restaurant I am interested in the quality and price of the food, not whether the cook is putting aside enough money for his pension and certainly not whether the Government has approved the menu.

Following an outcry from principals it seems that the Government is having second thoughts about pressing on, from dodgy dossiers to suspect stars. Like the ill-judged intervention on performance-related funding, that gave more resources to precisely those colleges that had demonstrated they needed them least, it would provide employment for bean counters and benefit few others. In the consultative document, published by the LSC last month, a star system is downgraded to "one option under consideration". We should celebrate an outbreak of common sense, or perhaps the realisation that after 2008 we will all have stars.

Mick Fletcher is an education consultant

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