Why throw away so much so soon?;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
WITH MY bucket and spade put away, it's back to piles of paper. Conspicuous by its trendy packaging is the White Paper Learning to Succeed: I thought perhaps that I had misjudged it, but it doesn't read any better second or third time around. It is not just that the tone is so negative - colleges, training and enterprise councils and the careers service have failed - but proposals for the new order carry so little conviction.

Of course post-compulsory education is not in rosy-cheeked health, of course change is the antidote to complacency, but was it necessary to sweep so much away so soon? The time since the incorporation of colleges has been short, but improved standards are evident; new kinds of student are being attracted; financial management is improving.

Only since incorporation have we had a recognisable college sector. Now that, too, is to go as organisations of all kinds, private, public, voluntary and combinations of all three, will have access to public funds for training and vocational education.

We should perhaps not be too precious about a sector identity, although it is something which the Further Education Funding Council and the Association of Colleges have been trying hard to articulate. Schools and universities have a jealously-protected sector, and they keep trespassers out. Now anybody, it seems, can have a go at a bit of FE:get two or three together, form an organisation with a suitable set of purposes, and away you go.

One big Learning and Skills Council to fund everything except schools and HE sounds good, if it means the same tariff for the same qualification wherever it's offered.

So why do we need lots of smaller learning councils? It can't just be to count the money and pass it on. So they must be there to plan. Planning needs two things to make it work. The first is good information: where will the learning councils get theirs from? If there is a reliable source of labour market intelligence, why did the old area manpower boards and their successor TECs never find it?

The second requirement if planning is to work is the power to act. Whence do the necessary powers come? If the learning councils are appointed they have no legitimacy; if elected, who's got the vote? And if the learning council writ runs through its sub-region, where does that leave college corporations who thought they had responsibility for the strategic direction of the college?

When the White Paper was being written, one consistent refrain was that we did not need to worry about inspection. The Government had got the message that we were over-inspected, what with the HE squad, the Training Standards Council and the dear old FEFC itself. We could expect just one inspectorate for FE and training. Then the rats got at it, and we are to have Mr Woodhead checking the progress of the 16-19s.

Do the White Paper's authors not know that it is normal in colleges for teenage students to be sitting alongside adults? Mr Woodhead will have to avert his gaze from the 19-plus wrinklies when doing his inspection. When the inspectors of Mr Woodhead's leftovers call, they must avoid the teenage cohort.

Perhaps somebody who understands this thinking could explain it in 75 words.

All this ritual posturing is like a tired Punch and Judy show. But not so funny.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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