Wonderland within reach

12th December 2003 at 00:00
We cynics are having a bad time of it at the moment. For a cynic, the world is a place where the best laid plans lead predictably to unintended consequences: Individual Learning Accounts, for example; where bureaucracy stifles initiative, as in LearnDirect; where colleges seem to be run for the benefit of auditors rather than students; where institutional politics and boundaries restrict opportunities for the young people they should be serving; where Ofsted runs an inflexible reign of terror in the name of responsive quality and where the Department for Education and Skills sits atop the whole wonderland of confusion like the Queen of Hearts herself.

Those of us who spend our days at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party are sometimes like the March Hare, running like fury to stand still, sometimes like the dormouse, lulled into peaceful slumber by the latest funding circular and sometimes like Alice, faintly puzzled, slightly alienated, but obliged to accept the bizarre as normal. Now there are signs of change, indicators of what I shall tentatively call the New Sanity.

For unto us a circular is born, called Plan-Led Funding and it shows all the signs of having been written by human beings with a grasp on reality.

It is thus the first such document to emerge from our Coventry bosses since some of the masterpieces of the early 1990s.

As those masterpieces, such as the seminal Funding Learning all eventually fell foul of the law of unintended consequences it may be a little early to celebrate. Funding Learning, old lags will recall, introduced the sector to ALF-based funding units as a way of life and ended up by doing exactly the opposite of what it said on the can.

Plan-Led Funding heralds as big a revolution as Funding Learning and it could convert cynics like me from entrenched scepticism about central planning to a wholesome belief in the new order with all the usual convert's zeal. It was launched at a bad time, as some colleges were being offered a cash cut for next year, but hey, we don't let these little short-term irritations blind us to the possibility of a long-term Greater Good, do we?

So what is it about this new circular which has allowed a first flicker of the flame of hope that we can escape from Wonderland into the sunlit uplands of simplicity?

Well, for a start, it slays the Jabberwock. This monster, in Lewis Carrol's famous poem, had jaws that bite and claws that catch; it had eyes of flame and 'wiffled through the tulgy wood, burbling as it came'. Clearly, Lewis Carrol had a premonition of the Individual Learning Record Audit, the monster which has roamed the FE lands unchecked for years, defying the efforts of even the best giant-killers.

And now at last, someone is promising to slay it. 'Oh come to my arms my beamish boy; o frabjous day, calloo, callay, I chortle in my joy.' These lines play hell with my spellchecker but reflect a genuine pleasure that a monster of mythological proportions is being removed from our lives.

In short, the LSC is planning to sever, with one stroke of its vorpal sword, all connection between the ILR and the level of funding given to colleges at the end of the year.

As it does so, the greatest killer weapon in the Jabberwock's armoury is destroyed as well: clawback. This fiendish device allowed the Jabberwock's victims to think they had survived its attack; they were out of the tulgy wood and heading for the open fields of a new funding year.

A few gulps of fresh pure air, the spring of lush new grass beneath your feet, then wham!; the jaws bit and the claws snatched you back to gyre and gimble in the wabe, alongside the mome-raths, or ILR auditors as we know them today.

So removing it is an unalloyed blessing. Clawback looks instantly like a relic of a crueller, less forgiving age, like caning in schools, or the rack as counselling therapy. We must give some credit for its abolition to outgoing LSC chief executive John Harwood. It would be cruel to compare him with any Wonderland character, but he had a great fall and, from all accounts, all the King's horses and men may have their traditional reassembly difficulty.

He can take comfort from this potentially great legacy for the sector. Not that all is perfect. His successor, promising plain English and straightforward prose, can practice on this circular. Good though it is, it is three times longer than necessary and often says the same thing several times over.

What it appears to say bears rehearing, however: fewer audits and fewer auditors; less intervention; an easier-to-understand funding system; abolition of census dates; abolition of employer-dedicated discount and many more early Christmas presents.

This is a consultation exercise bigger than Chris Tarrant doing 'ask the audience' on the pound;1m question. We should all respond. And if you can't do it in plain English, just send them a picture of a Cheshire cat.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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