Time to find out who is failing whom;Further Education

10th December 1999 at 00:00
JIM Donaldson's third chief inspector's report again highlights the problem of failing colleges. It indicates that 42 of the 104 inspected will be re-inspected and refers to 10 with major shortcomings. Eighteen per cent of colleges have serious financial difficulties.

There is a growing body of literature on "failing" colleges which begins to make a comparative analysis possible. Since incorporation there have been reports from the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate; the National Audit Office; the public accounts committee and FEFC reports.

An analysis of 13 published reports, from Derby Tertiary College,Wilmorton and St Phillip's through Stoke-on-Trent to the recent flurry of "failures" at Halton, Bilston, Wirral and Matthew Boulton, is instructive.

The reports suggest that the clearest symptom of trouble is inadequate, inaccurate and late management information. Other symptoms include a breakdown in relations between management and staff: whistleblower letters and questions from MPs.

When colleges fail someone has got to carry the can. There must be accountability and the easiest targets are chief executives, managers, governors and, possibly, auditors. But analysis of reports reveals the same problems occur:

Governance weak. Governors failed to require the information they should have had from the executive. Governors failed to challenge the executive sufficiently.

Principalschief executives failed to discharge their responsibilities as accounting officers; failed to put in place systems to ensure that accurate data was available for both planning and reporting; have been over optimistic about prospective income; in some cases, bullied their managers.

Auditors have not always picked up much of this.

The consequences of failure are familiar. In almost all cases the chief executive has to go. In most cases some or all of the senior staff leave, through resignation, voluntary redundancy or dismissal. The corporation goes, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not. There are large deficits and clawbacks and huge job losses. In the colleges listed above at least 1,000 people have lost their jobs.

But why does the same thing keep on happening? And does the FEFC have any responsibility?

MPs on the public accounts committee clearly wondered about this when they met David Melville to discuss the Halton "alleged irregularities", as the report delicately puts it.

Local MP Derek Twigg asked him how the governing body of a college could be expected to know that incorrect or inappropriate claims were being made for students?

He said: "How can governors make themselves aware of that if the auditors and all the systems currently in place within the FEFC cannot pick that up?"

In his answer Professor Melville refers to advice from the FEFC. But, as Derek Twigg reminded him, with more than 400 circulars since 1992, the quantity of advice may not have been matched by the quality.

Some of these crises have been of elephantine gestation; colleges were running at a loss and failed to submit information to the FEFC for several years. In others nothing came to light until someone blew the whistle.

In the case of Halton, the FEFC assured everyone in its inspection report of May 1997 that "by risk-taking and innovation...the college has broken new ground. It has tested Government policy, helped formulate FEFC thinking, offered a new model for the delivery of training courses to other colleges and secured its financial future in the short term."

How little we knew. In November 1997 a whistleblower wrote to the National Audit Office and the whole house of cards collapsed. Now pound;14 million is being clawed back.

At Bilston an FEFC audit report in July 1997 assured governors that the college's management arrangements were substantially in accord with statute and the council's guidance. The conclusion of the inspection and audit 18 months later was a little different.

However the rash of naming and shaming has clearly done its job. One can only feel sorry for the principal at Aylesbury college currently suspended, it appears, because two software packages and two sets of external auditors came to substantially different conclusions about the number of units the college was worth.

The chair of the corporation is quoted as saying: "This is action on the initiative of the governors. We haven't been chased by the funding council. We've been proactive not reactive."

An NAO inquiry into "failing" colleges is reported to be under way. I wonder if we will get to see the results, or whether the political imperative now is not naming and shaming but success and accredited status? Surely there must be an independent and public inquiry into the underlying reasons for the rash of "failing" colleges. We need to know who is failing whom.

Paul Goddard-Patel is former assistant

principal, Bilston Community College.

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