Self-regulation is the key debate in FE. After years of bureaucracy and interference, colleges are on the threshold of maturity and eager to claw back responsibilities that should have been theirs. But can self- regulation really work and still provide accountability? And can it lead to high levels of student success and achievement?
Small communities often make good test cases. Some years ago, Sky TV was testing a new service in the Isle of Man before going national and, likewise, I have thoroughly road-tested self-regulation. I live happily outside of the regulatory framework of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Learning and Skills Council, Ofsted et al, and yet run an English curriculum of high quality which compares well against the better UK colleges.
Over 10 years, we have built a comprehensive, self-regulatory framework with a strong quality improvement culture. Highlands College serves Jersey - a self-governing Crown dependency with its own education service.
The organisation and structure of the place look reassuringly familiar, although on the face of it the governing body has limited powers as it is not a corporate body. However, governors are responsibile for performance management, standards setting and quality improvement.
It sounds high-minded to say that the college has made quality improvement a moral imperative, but it has been the main focus of the governors' activities.
We called our self-regulation model Supported Self-Improvement, and its building blocks will be familiar to anyone working in FE. We carry out self-assessment, have an evolving peer review process with other small islands, we have a strong target-setting regime and our governors have a standards committee.
We also have a college inspector. So, you may ask, where's the self- regulation? The difference is that the governors appoint our inspector, whose role is not only to report on standards but to work with our teams to raise standards and achievement, and to be a source of advice and help. We are building our own improvement culture rather than having one imposed. That makes a huge difference, not only in terms of the process but in student achievement, staff motivation and morale.
Of course, mistakes have been made. We didn't realise what hard work it would be - it is far more difficult to plan an improvement campaign than to follow an Ofsted framework. We do get asked - and have to demonstrate - the robustness of our processes.
Our partner universities, including one from the Russell Group, have been supportive, perhaps because they too are self-regulating.
The issue is why it has taken so long to happen. We all know the history of FE since incorporation, but the sector has travelled a huge distance in the past few years.
My assessment is that the Single Voice, representing colleges and training providers in the pursuit of a self-regulating system, is following the right path, and its focus on quality improvement is a good starting point. If that can be nailed, then a good case can be made to relax the reins in other areas.
One of the freedoms we have exploited is the ability to look at examples of good practice in places other than England. It is clear that FE can now join the universities as a self-regulated sector.