Why the secrecy when we talk about funding a public service?

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Psst . . . can you keep a secret? If so, read on. The way of distributing funding to the further education sector is being looked at. The Funding Methodology Review, which was triggered by the previous government, should have been used as an opportunity for Labour to link FE funding to its proposed strategic framework for the sector. Sadly, this opportunity may have been missed because the review is being conducted hastily and there has been little or no consultation with colleges.

So the lifelong learning policy prerogatives of the Government will be set against the funding priorities of its predecessor beyond the maximum two years accepted by the Chancellor.

The haste is unnecessary. The FE sector, probably more than any other, is well aware of the need relentlessly to review its activities. Likewise, while we are aware of minor anomalies in the existing model, the case for a radical overhaul now has not been made. We may ask, is it possible to do more than tinker with the methodology? The facts facing the sector, including insufficient funding, buildings in disrepair and a repertoire of demands from Higher Still, the Garrick and Dearing reports and the New Deal through to the IT revolution and a new model of inspection based on self-evaluation would all be addressed by an increase in the money available.

My advice to Brian Wilson's advisers is mark time now by sorting out the anomalies and listening to the sector's case for more resources. The review should be medium term, say two years, and should reflect Labour's policy priorities and the availability of resources.

But so far the secrecy of the review has not dovetailed with Labour's manifesto commitment to open government. For example, it is not clear how the membership of the review group was determined. Nor have we seen minutes or reports from the discussions. Although all college chairs and principals were given a briefing in June by the chairman of the review group - a senior civil servant - the Association of Scottish Colleges arranged for a discussion under Chatham House rules, which make comments unattributable. Thankfully, as a result of pressure from within the sector and with the agreement of the Government official, the discussion at the association's annual meeting in Stirling earlier this month was an open one. The private and unattributable approach to policy and decision-making which has operated for at least 80 years is now virtually standard civil service practice. It is not the stuff of open and modern government.

Ironically, another unattributable source has suggested that before the end of this year a White Paper on lifelong learning will be published. It is surely sensible that the White Paper should set the context for the funding review and not vice versa. FE managers and practitioners know we cannot hold up government by waiting for a Scottish parliament but we must be allowed to contribute to a new agenda for lifelong learning. Inadequate consultation may place at risk effective coverage of a number of issues which should more properly be debated openly within and beyond the FE sector.

It is crucially important that the Government is given the opportunity to consolidate and build policy coherence across departments. This, for example, will allow colleges to play a central role in attacking social exclusion in all its forms, promoting urban and rural regeneration and delivering the New Deal for employment. Likewise, it may allow us to consider more realistic performance indicators linked to individuals and not institutions, flexible approaches to public funding which might make existing resources go further as well as reviewing appropriate funding in light of the true costs of radical curricular change.

A number of FE managers are concerned that the model presently under consideration could limit the capacity of the Scottish parliament to operate a strategic framework for the colleges or for lifelong learning in such a way as to ensure democratic accountability.

There is no consensus in FE about whether a funding council should replace direct grants from the Scottish Office. Some of the previous administration's "next step" agencies, like the Student Awards Agency or the Scottish Arts Council, are not performing particularly well. And let us not forget that "quangocracy" was widely condemned before the election. I believe that Labour's professed commitment to open government is laudable, that its policies are sensible and the vision will lead to better government. But the review of FE funding is taking place outwith the context of priorities established in the party's Scottish manifesto.

The minister must reaffirm his commitment to make time to talk and listen to the FE sector. I am sure they will tell him "Chatham House rules . . . not OK!" The communities served by Scotland's FE colleges deserve better.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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