The three-year development plan is widely regarded as a crucially important document for colleges and other providers, but many in the sector believe that brevity should be the soul of the funding formula. Neil Merrick reports
When Bedford College was told it had to produce a three-year development plan for its local learning and skills council, Ian Pryce, the principal, didn't see why the exercise should threaten too many rainforests. Bedford, a college with 17,000 students and an annual turnover of pound;18 million, produced a five-page document outlining what it intends to do over the next three years and its progress towards the targets set by the council.
Bedfordshire and Luton learning and skills council was reasonably happy, but insisted on a little more information - so the plan now stretches across five and a half pages of A4. Even so, it is still believed to be the shortest plan of its kind among learning providers in England and seems to prove that if something is worth saying, it is worth saying briefly.
Three-year development plans - their roots in the Success For All initiative - are designed to improve standards of all post-16 provision. It meant a move towards long-term funding based on greater trust.
After consultations in early 2003, colleges and other providers were told that they must produce the plans in negotiation with their local learning and skills councils by the end of July, a deadline that was later extended to the end of October.
But the plans were never meant to be weighty tomes. A high-level summary document outlining a strategic plan was requested by most learning and skills councils, but not everyone managed to be as succinct as Bedford College.
"There is no point in producing something that nobody is going to read," says Ian Pryce. "The original advice we were given was to be short and sweet. If you can't say something in five and a half pages, how is it going to be a working document?"
Bedford has since turned its development plan into an A5 booklet, a copy of which was given to all 500 staff. Mr Pryce is full of praise for his learning and skills council . "Relations are very good - it's an administrative relationship and I understand they have a job to do," he says.
According to the national LSC, 92 per cent of all providers agreed a plan within the time allowed. Not only does this secure future funding but, in the case of colleges and other providers, it means a 2 per cent bonus on top of their 2003-04 allocation.
Toni Fazaeli, director of performance analysis in the national LSC's quality and standards directorate, says the aim is to simplify planning and funding, although there are still issues to be tackled, including how to measure achievement in adult and community learning.
"We see it as a working document in planning for local priorities," she says. "It should feel as if there has been an informed and professional dialogue that gives a clear sense of employer needs and the best way of tackling skills shortages."
But not everyone is happy with the situation. One college principal, who declined to be identified in case his local learning and skills council might take retribution, says the idea of a short plan "went out of the window" after the local council introduced extra targets on top of the headline targets required nationally.
Some principals got into an argument with the local LSC which, he says, is full of "nice people" who have little clue about the challenges and workload facing providers. "It's been a waste of time," the principal adds.
"There isn't anybody there with experience of running a large organisation."
Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, says there is no reason why it should be difficult to write a three-year plan, although some colleges struggled on the employer target.
He says a few local councils added to the workload by introducing further targets, although most did follow the national guidance.
There was also confusion over the exact form the plan should take. "You can see it as a love letter from a college, asking the LSC to treat it nicely, or a letter of application asking for more money, or a lawyer's letter showing you have met all the conditions," says Mr Gravatt.
Brian Styles, former principal of City of Bristol College, acted as a consultant to the national LSC over development plans and believes the exercise went fairly well.
Staff from local councils were specifically trained so that they did not impose an extra burden by, for example, requesting extra targets. "This year was about starting the dialogue between LSCs and providers on how they are going to take the Government's agenda forward," says Mr Styles.
Indeed, Toni Fazaeli emphasises that FE colleges should only have to meet four headline targets; there are fewer for work-based and adult providers.
An evaluation is under way within the LSC and she is optimistic that any teething troubles will be ironed out before providers renew their plans this summer.
"We are concerned that we are going in the right direction and want to ensure that good practice is shared across the sector," she says. "There should be an informed, professional dialogue that benefits colleges and other providers. In some parts of the country we may not have got there fully at this stage."
For more information on three-year plans, see http:3dp.lsc.gov.ukindex.cfm