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Waiting for the new ghosts to depart

FIFTEEN months to go, and counting. The future is approaching fast, and we can so far only guess what it will look and feel like. Already, at meetings where you would expect to find people from the Training and Enterprise Councils, you can't help noticing the empty chairs. The list of temporary vacancies at the Further Education Funding Council gets longer by the day. The old order changes.

It's all reminiscent of the period leading up to incorporation six years ago. Moving from local education authority control to semi-independence was exciting or frightening, too fast or too slow, amicable or confrontational, depending on who you were and where you worked.

It was a journey into the dark. But you thought, or at least most of us surely did, that the new world of a Funding Council, a defined FE sector and a new inspection regime was to be ours for the foreseeable future. We should have known better. Nothing that is permanent lasts, only the temporary prevails.

So we can expect that Learning and Skills Councils will also have built-in obsolescence. The new inspection arrangements, widely thought to be unworkable, may not last too long. There is perhaps no need yet for the Association of Colleges to think about widening its membership to become the Association of Further Education Providers.

However, just because you know that the future is uncertain does not make planning for it any easier. Those organisation gurus who made a few bob by writing about managing ambiguity can expect to make a few more now as anxious principals cast about for answers.

Thoughts will soon be turning to the great German physicist and 1932 Nobel prizewinner, Werner Heisenberg. His "uncertainty principle", a daily topic of conversation in these parts, states that the more you know about the energy of an object, the less you know about its position. And vice versa. Professor H may have thought that he was talking about quantum mechanics alone, unaware of his principle's relevance to post-16 education and training.

It is hard to say what position the most obviously energetic TEC and FEFC people will take up. By contrast, it will be easy to pinpoint the exact location of the low-energy, sedentary individuals. They will be firmly rooted at their desks in one or other of the new oranisations: a Learning and Skills Council, or a Small Business Service.

The new arrangements will kick in from April, but the issues that the new organisations will have to address will be the familiar ones. Low skills, patchy participation, impenetrable qualification structure, unfair funding and variable quality will all be there on the agenda. In a way, it is surprising how many people want to stick around to have another go at solving them. Over the coming months, with the FEFC holed below the waterline, and the TECs subsiding like punctured balloons, the continuity will come from the colleges.

This is no time for faint hearts and timid souls, and a particularly sensitive time for a strategic hiatus. All of a sudden, it seems, much-trumpeted e-commerce is at last really going to change the way we live and work. Since colleges' main business is anticipating the effects of change and helping people to take advantage of it, we have lots of urgent work to do.

At the same time, all those expensive and bulky PCs are about to become redundant as technology converges on the mobile phone. Vast swathes of current college programmes consist of training in information and communication technology. A new paradigm is upon us. We'll just have to struggle through on our own, planning and providing as best we can, without the help of our doomed colleagues in the FEFC and the TECs.

And, after the intermission, what will the big picture be? Perhaps we can expect the coming changes to be more about name than substance. The funding formula will, it seems, be the one familiar to us, and will no doubt be a cause of gratifying astonishment and delight to those who will meet it for the first time.

Already we know that the Learning and Skills Council will colonise the FEFC headquarters in Coventry, and that sub-regional LSCs are going to inhabit the premises left vacant by the departing TECs. When this part of Lancashire was reorganised in the 1960s, this college took over the whole of a building which had previously been the grammar school. It took more than 30 years for local people to stop referring to the site as the "Grammar School".

Will it take that long for the new ghosts to depart?

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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