What about the students?

Agenda for change `champion' says reforms have focused on needs of institutions to the detriment of education

THE MAN who was responsible for promoting a programme of wide-ranging reforms at further education's funding quango says the changes have neglected students' needs.

Ray Dowd, who has finished his tenure as the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change champion, said the reforms have concentrated too much on structural changes rather than improving what happens in the classroom.

"They are more designed to fix the car than to support the passengers, for the focus on teaching and learning seems to have been lost," he said in a report marking the end of his term in the role.

Mr Dowd said this attitude has its roots in a culture in FE which moved from the philanthropic aim of improving the lot of working people to the solution of a national economic problem through public funding.

"Even today, the language spoken by most principals is the language of accounting, of funding, of utilisation - the language of the factory," he said.

"Although the sector is now labelled as learning and skills, the pedagogical imperatives seem always to come after the need to make the numbers add up."

Ellie Russell, the National Union of Students' vice-president for FE, said the impact of the reforms might take some time to trickle down to students.

But focusing on students and giving them more of a say in their education was vital. In any other part of the economy it would be considered absurd not to take the views of customers into account, she said.

"I don't think students are apathetic," she said. "If you walked into any common room, all they're talking about is how the teaching is crap or the common room is too small or the food in the canteen. That's frustration and anger, not apathy, because they don't have the systems and structures to do anything about it."

Agenda for change was a reform of the LSC which aimed to make the organisation more responsive to local needs, improve quality and simplify funding - at a cost of losing 1,300 staff.

Mr Dowd said there were some clear triumphs, with the FE system having achieved all its targets for improving success rates, increasing the numbers of young people in education and reducing the number of failing colleges. He said these could not be attributed solely to the LSC or its reforms.

College staff have been sceptical. A survey by FE Focus and the Learning and Skills Network earlier this year found that only 56 per cent believed the reforms would improve the system, and about a third thought they would have no effect.

Mr Dowd said that although the reforms involved consultation, they focused too much on the needs of FE institutions by talking mainly to principals rather than students or employers.

In the medium term, the role of the LSC will come into question, he said, as they become more entrepreneurial and independent.

He said: "If colleges regulate themselves and rely less and less on money from the LSC, what exactly does the LSC do? I believe there are many different answers of which abolition is only one - and the crudest."

Its future may lie in monitoring the market and intervening in areas where it fails, Mr Dowd said.

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