Too many eyes rake over colleges

11th June 2004 at 01:00
The red-tape task force recommends sorting out who is accountable for what. Ian Nash reports

Awarding bodies have too much power to scrutinise the work of colleges, says Sir Andrew Foster, the Government's college bureaucracy-busting tsar.

The urgent need to constrain assessment and exam awarding bodies is one of five key conclusions at the heart of Sir Andrew's report, to be published next week - one year after the former controller of the Audit Commission was appointed by ministers to act as "gatekeeper" against excessive bureaucracy.

His report covers five major themes - the need for clearer strategies, fewer lines of accountability and scrutiny, simpler funding regimes, a wholesale shake-up of "over-complicated" management information systems (MIS) and a curtailing of awarding bodies' powers.

A central recommendation in Sir Andrew's report is to improve "accountability" and reduce "scrutiny" of colleges and training providers by the numerous government, support, audit and inspection agencies.

The relative roles at national, regional and local levels were still unclear - including the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council. "It is a vital need to sort out who is accountable for what."

Lack of clarity led to even greater uncertainty among organisations charged with scrutinising performance and standards. Sir Andrew insists intervention should be "proportionate to risk" and calls for a much lighter touch for those colleges and training groups that do well, while taking an even tougher line on under-performance.

"There remains absolutely too much scrutiny that is not as well organised as it ought to be," he said. "If you take the full welter of everything asked of provider organisations, the weight is still substantial and there is a need to develop a more effective system."

The issue was one of management. "It is not a question of how many forms we can reduce or how many levels of bureaucracy we can take out. Bureaucracy is the consequence of bad management. Good management can sometimes be about deciding not to do things."

Sir Andrew's report will be published at the annual conference of the Learning and Skills Development Agency in London. It will be central to announcements by Education Secretary Charles Clarke at the conference, of a five-year improvement strategy for FE.

Sir Andrew's watchdog was created by the Learning and Skills Council's bureaucracy-busting task force, headed by Sir George Sweeney. "I build on what Sir George did but do it differently. My end-of-first-year report is that positive things have been done to improve management and reduce bureaucracy but there is still a lot more that needs to be done."

He is particularly critical of the awarding bodies. "One thing that comes through very strongly is the burden on providers from awarding bodies. In extremis up to 100 have powers to inspect and scrutinise a provider. The whole system is very time consuming for colleges."

Sir George's final report was strong on the need for "self-improvement and self-regulation" with the creation of a "BMA or Law Society" run by bodies such as the Association of Colleges. His task force also recommended at one stage a single system of inspection, which it suggested would help cut bureaucracy.

Sir Andrew takes a longer-term view on self-regulation and argues that a single inspection system is not necessarily the answer to the burden of scrutiny. "The task of setting one up would take at least two years and take your eye off the ball. We don't have time for that."

Single organisations were not always the answer, he said. "Look at the City of London. There were 11 regulatory bodies and the Government reduced them to one in the Financial Services Authority. Some say it is more radical but some say it is more bureaucratic."

Sir Andrew spent 10 years addressing similar problems in the health service, police and Greater London Authority before turning his attentions to FE.

Last year he warned of the dangers in always seeing "structural change" as the solution. Criticising hasty NHS reforms, he said workers were becoming "punch drunk" from the sheer mass of change.

"People become preoccupied with establishing new institutions and politicians then become impatient, and before you know it there are calls for further change."

Strategically, Sir Andrew said, the Government is on the right lines with the Success for All agenda, which has made positive gains. On funding, he said, "the jury is out".

"The general response is that the new plan-led funding is positive but there is concern about how it will be implemented. So I am saying clearer and simpler funding is an important issue."

But his report is highly critical of the management of information. "My own first sight of MIS here is that it is not timely, it is over complicated and too much information is required. Good management is clear about what it wants, produces a minimum of information and uses it."

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