Where there's brass, there's change;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
All those with eyes to see and ears to hear will know of the current fashion on television and radio for offering prizes of up to a million pounds for answering a series of increasingly difficult questions. A harassed contestant might win a handy half-million if they can answer the following question: on what recent occasion did a British band play a piece about a Swiss patriot, written by an Italian, to a Thai audience, and what has this to do with further education? The answer is, of course, that the Desford Colliery Band played the William Tell overture at a British Council concert in Bangkok, and quite a lot.

It was a cultured audience: not only were three ambassadors there, but, when the music broke into the famous gallop, none of them leapt up to shout "Hi Ho, Silver!". They heard some terrific playing, and, thanks to the programme notes, will have understood just how much brass band playing has developed from its origins as an intensely local, evening-only activity. Just like FE, in fact. Players are no longer off-duty miners with a crate of ale at their feet and, between tunes, a meat pie in their mouth. Bands now recruit from all over the country, have a regional, national and even international role, and include some full-time players, with a growing proportion of women and people from the ethnic minorities.

The British Council also funded the visit of a small delegation from British FE colleges to advise the Thai government on recent developments in vocational education and training. Principal cornets and college principals were in town at the same time. It is good that the British Council, now chaired by Helena Kennedy, sees that promoting the best of British overseas must include the better elements of FE. The better bits, or at least the most interesting ones, for the Thais are autonomous colleges, the qualification structure, and the inspection regime. They are committed to the first, but wanted to know more about the second (especially National Vocational Qualifications), and were mildly alarmed at the complexity of the third. Just like us, then.

Sensibly, the Thais have been debating the incorporation of colleges for some time, even though the handover day is still some years off. Quite a contrast to the cloak-and-dagger preparation of legislation and rushed countdown to I-day here.

Those who were in charge of English colleges in 1993, of whom only a third are now still in post, could easily reel off a list of key issues to plan for. Back then they were half-glimpsed shapes, but now, bathed in the bright light of hindsight, we can pick them out. Incorporated colleges are new colleges, not old ones with a new label, and staff need time and guidance to understand the new culture. Competition can be stimulating, but is painfully abrasive. Principals and senior managers need skills such as personnel, finance, and estates which they did not need before 1993.

The Thais will do things more gradually, and quite possibly more successfully. They will consider training for senior managers before rather than after the event. They will no doubt take note of the difficulties caused by an over-ambitious funding methodology which is still, six years on, testing the software housed to destruction as well as distorting the work of the colleges whose lives it was supposed to make easier. They are also beginning to wonder about merging the ministries of vocational education and labour to bring about more coherent, policy-led funding. Why didn't we think of that?

As the band played on, it became obvious that an essentially British working-class phenomenon had resonance in a wholly different cultural tradition. The programme even included a piece composed by the King of Thailand, as if to show how music vaults effortlessly across frontiers. Brass bands are best when they do what they do best. They are not symphony orchestras, neither are they string quartets. The Thais liked them for what they were.

It was the same for British FE:they knew we were not pretending to be universities, nor were we mincing about, hoping to be mistaken for finishing schools.

In their infinitely courteous way, the Thais are keen to learn from the British experience. They are too polite to point out that we British are more likely to have a positive impact by good example than by trying to impose anything. And far too well-mannered to give us the answer to the million-pound question: which was the last country on which Britain declared war? Thailand, as it happens, in 1942.

The author is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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