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Time has come for FE colleges to take stock;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

Further education colleges are managed by moaners. We moan most often that nobody understands us, nobody loves us, and nobody cares about what we do. But it still came as something of a surprise when a stranger with a very bony finger poked me in the chest in the pub and demanded to know what colleges were going to do about the fact that the Spice Girls were number one at Christmas again.

I muttered something about how the Spice Girls had proved that downsizing their organisation by 20 per cent did not reduce their effectiveness and hurried back to the darts board.

Between double tops and bulls-eyes my darts mate, also from a college, confided that she had recently been asked what colleges were going to do about English cricket. Suddenly, it seems, there is a wealth of evidence that further education has finally made it into the public consciousness. People know we are here and are starting to have expectations of us, even if their hopes are rather vague and as over-pitched as some of England's recent bowling in Australia.

If people really are looking at us, what is there left to moan about as we enter this bright new year, the very last of its kind? We could start by complaining about anything that's called "new". We're up to our eyes in novelty: new contracts for lecturers, new training initiatives, new funding methodologies, something called "new money", New Deal, New Labour, and so it goes. Old is out, new is in.

Novelty has never been an adequate substitute for policy; fresh starts do not add up to a vision. Who is doing the essential, joined-up thinking for the new (sic) millennium? When Messrs Blunkett, Gibson and Melville get together for a game of darts, if they ever do, what do they talk about? We know that their parents shared a liking for the name David, but does anything else bring them together?

You can imagine them nodding their heads sagely and intoning the mantra: Information Technology will transform the Ways in which People Learn. Well, yes, but is that all? We lose at cricket because we have not yet understood that a game developed as a leisure pursuit several centuries ago will not work when it is expected to be part of a multi-million pound industry. Fiddling about with coloured clothing, televised action replays, and computerised ranking of players is not the answer.

The great Trinity could usefully ask themselves a few basic questions, such as: Why are there more pubs than colleges? Why can't colleges match the growth rate of prisons? Why can't we tell the difference between success and failure in FE? This would divert them from tempting but trivial issues, such as how many homes will have online links to a college, what a modular curriculum looks like and how much funding an A-level student should attract.

We don't want any more spray-can policy statements; we've had enough message makeovers. If the Davidian conversation ever flags, they could remind themselves of the bony finger in the chest. If we are to continue to provide a service to the public bar, those buying the round will want to know what they are getting for their money.

It would be daft to assert that this is a critical moment for FE, still less that we would recognise it if it were. There are no such moments, merely a series of opportunities for reflection along a continuum of frantic activity. The turn of a year, however - and shortly of a millennium - is as good a time as any to draw breath and a few conclusions.

If that chance is taken, we might make history. The bony finger would then be seen as of equivalent anatomical significance to Jenkin's ear, which famously caused a war.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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