You are all tricky middle children

27th January 2006 at 00:00
The Foster report had a better initial reaction from colleges than from the press. When Sir Andrew introduced his report at the Association of College's conference in November, his audience went through the full gamut of emotions: from relief to disappointment to cautious enthusiasm.

Relief came from realisation that there was more to the report than the initial headlines about closing failing colleges, which had excited the media overnight. Only five of his 273 paragraphs were about that minority group, only around 5 per cent of colleges.

Principals had to acknowledge that the report generally read sympathetically, recognised the huge importance of FE colleges to the nation's economic development and social cohesion, and endorsed the model of a self-governing FE sector with significant independence.

Disappointment, however, came partly from a sense of flatness - the report lacked the rhetorical flourishes we have come to expect from government documents since 1997 - and partly from its support for some uncomfortable current government policies.

For the report strongly endorsed the primacy of the skills and employability agenda as the central purpose of general FE colleges (since reinforced by the Leitch report), the Government's focus of public resources on meeting that priority, the now-established quality improvement agenda, and the elite role of a separate sub-sector of sixth-form colleges.

Finally, the cautious enthusiasm came from a realisation that Sir Andrew had been pretty savage about "relatives" who cluster round what he saw as "the unloved middle child" that is the FE sector. The hope was that this savagery would lead to more civilised behaviour by the Government and its agencies.

Indeed, for a review whose remit was to "advise on the role of FE colleges and the key challenges and opportunities facing them", there was a surprising amount about the failure of the Department for Education and Skills to provide a "clear framework spanning schools, further and higher education", and about "the strategic confusion" between DfES, the LSC and the other competing institutions involved in FE's funding, qualifications and quality assurance systems.

So, in the cold light of day two months later, which of these emotions were justified?

The relief was natural. But Sir Andrew had made clear his general sympathy for FE colleges throughout, so no one should have been surprised. Nor should anyone have been surprised by the relative lack of the "vision thing".

The family analogy chosen by Foster was interesting. In most families, there is only one first child - schools in Foster's analogy - with a clear role. There is only one last child - universities, which, in each generation take the transmission of knowledge, culture and learning as far as it can go. However, in between, we have not just one middle child, but lots of them playing different roles, depending on their origins and local circumstances.

Over the past 50 years, and particularly since 1993, these have come together to form the FE sector in England, and a very varied beast it is.

The main foreign model that Foster commends is instructive. The US community college system is itself a merger of two systems: junior colleges, providing a cheaper, more accessible and more supportive route to degrees via two-year associate degree programmes; and technical colleges, more focused on vocational skills and employer engagement.

In fact, though now a single system, US community colleges manifest a similar diversity of roles to FE colleges. This diversity is accepted in America as reflecting the different circumstances - and priorities - of different US states.

The Foster report is a creature of its time. It says largely what one might expect. But because it is a sober and independent document by an auditor, 12 years after the creation of a self-governing FE college sector, it is nevertheless worthwhile to have this said.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly was cautious in her welcome of the report - as was Chris Banks for the LSC. Colleges should not hold their breath either about being loved better (who could have done that more emotionally than David Blunkett?), or about reducing bureaucracy (Saint George, or rather Sir George Sweeney, has not achieved that, after all). We will have to see how the debate unfolds over the next two months.

However, Sir Andrew has given 90 per cent plus of the sector a clean bill of health. Most would settle for that.

David Forrester was director for further education and youth training in DfEE from 1995-2001. He is now a FE college governor arob.wyend independent consultant

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