Ian Nash on the deep problems that have made the post-16 organisations realise they need a single voice
A year ago today, leaders of eight national organisations for colleges and training groups met at the Charlotte Street Hotel, London, to explore ways of getting a better deal from government and more influence over policy.
After five years of growth under Labour - remember the first two from 1997 merely rubber-stamped Tory spending - there was cause for concern. Figures for Adult Learners' Week showed a fall of 7 per cent in student recruitment. Colleges never got the cash they needed to train basic skills tutors. Repeated pledges from ministers to close the pay and funding gaps between colleges and schools were getting nowhere. Moreover, all indications were that a tough three-year spending round was looming.
Just when the promised push for further education should have started, the Government's focus was narrowed down to skills for work. In fact a central question at that meeting, put by Chris Hughes, then chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, remains unanswered: "The Government clearly has a skills agenda but does it have a lifelong learning strategy?"
However, the gathering - sponsored by The TES which chaired the first meetings of what has been dubbed the Charlotte Group - was no occasion for whinges. Rather, various leaders saw a need to look afresh at what was going on in their organisations. Was there scope to speak with a single voice? Could they collectively offer more constructive advice to ministers? What about an agreement, a concord between government and the group of eight, setting minimum guarantees for concerted action? What about that narrow focus on skills? Wouldn't this deny cash to other learners?
In advance of the Charlotte Street Hotel meeting there were government pledges that read somewhat hollow today. They reveal assurances from ministers, senior civil servants and the Learning and Skills Council that the shift of burden to the individual through fees would be gradual with "robust" support for those who could not afford increases.
No one doubted the Government's commitment to education at all levels. But, at last year's meeting, and at each subsequent monthly meeting of the group, there have been new concerns about lack of clear policy and vision from government.
Policies have kept unravelling and new ones have been added arbitrarily with what appears to be a cavalier lack of consultation. Ministers rejected the Tomlinson 14-19 assessment reforms. An open-door policy of new school sixth forms was unveiled. Plans for 16-19 skills academies were announced, with insufficient research evidence to support them.
Each new proposal meant limited cash being spread ever more thinly.
One of the first organisations behind the idea of a group with a single voice was the Association for College Management. Nadine Cartner, head of policy, said: "The idea for the group arose out of a frustration with the sector's sense of its own powerlessness. That powerlessness influences how the sector is perceived by government and it stops us shaping policy as forcefully and effectively as we might."
The idea of national organisations for learning and skills working together with policy makers "with confidence, authority, evidence and analysis" immediately gelled with other organisations thinking along similar lines.
The group is simply a forum for common interests, not a merger or a federation. Individual organisations' aims are not compromised, whether we are talking about the Association of Colleges' manifesto for FE or Natfhe's pursuit of a national pay scale.
Indeed, the development of the concord (see right) highlights how different sector organisations share the same values and vision despite their diverging interests.
Consider the present funding crisis. The dominant feeling in the sector is one of impotence with individual organisations respond in various ways. But there is neither the ethos nor infrastructure to come together and make sharply intelligent arguments, supported by evidence, about skills and inclusion, to education ministers and the Treasury.
Our watchword will be "evidence" and the key question on the lips of Charlotte members is "What works?" After all when this government came to power in 1997, the then Education Secretary David Blunkett said repeatedly to journalists and educationists: "Nothing will be done without the evidence to support it."
But it is questionable how much ministers have continued to listen, says Chris Hughes. "I am not convinced policy-makers understand how policy works and the public values our institutions need to promote. Key organisations are too low down the policy food chain."
For example, can this administration say it has stuck to the evidence with its plans for sixth forms and academies and arbitrary funding priorities focused on skills training around a notional GCSE-equivalent level 2? If so, where is it? Where is the open forum for continuous debate? What happened to Tony Blair's Big Tent?
There have been successes and periods of influence, such as the wresting of extra millions from government last autumn by John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.
But where is the vision to unite the organisations? We need a single voice for the wide range of providers in day-to-day contact with consumers of education and training.
All the members agree a culture change takes time. Creating a sense of empowerment, authorship and self-confidence will be especially difficult when resources and money for pay, are tight.
But the time is right to launch a united group. Two fundamental studies are underway: the Foster Review of FE and the Leitch Review of the nation's skills. The analysis is certain to be robust. But will the political will to find the cash and implement change remain?
The TES is supporting the Charlotte group for two reasons. First, we have studied the evidence and find that it often does not support the Government's agenda. Second, this is a bold venture that deserves a high profile for its debates.
Pages of FE Focus will be used regularly for an open forum in which the views of the group and its individual members will be aired. Politicians and others are also invited to contribute.
This autumn sees the first TES National Learning and Skills Symposium at the Institute of Directors in London. The debate, led by Richard Layard, director of the London School of Economics centre for economic performance, will focus on the work of the group, with a critical but constructive analysis of the Government's learning and skills policy.
To start those discussions, the Charlotte group has produced a draft concord. Members hope the Government will eventually be willing to sign up.
Charlotte Group members
Association for College Management
Association of Colleges
Association of Learning Providers
Centre for Excellence in Leadership
Learning and Skills Development Agency
Lifelong Learning UK
National Association of Teachers
in Further and Higher Education
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education
The Times Educational Supplement