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'What do we get for Pounds 10m?' ask MPs

The Commons select committee is turning sceptical about the role of the Further Education Development Agency. Ben Russell reports.

A powerful committee of MPs this week expressed scepticism about the role of the quango set up to run research and training for further education colleges.

Members of the House of Commons education select committee quizzed Stephen Crowne, chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency for more than an hour about his organisation's role and value to colleges.

Margaret Hodge, committee chairman, said at the close: "You do leave us extremely sceptical about what Pounds 10 million a year and 30 staff are adding value to."

She had opened the session by asking: "You spend over Pounds 9 million, all of which comes from the FE sector. What value do you believe you add?" MPs questioned Mr Crowne about his attitude to college governance, franchising and the use of staffing agencies and asked why FEDA was not conducting research into such issues.

Mr Crowne said FEDA had no remit to regulate such areas, although the agency did express views. And he insisted research and training projects had to be commissioned by the agency's paymasters; no such work had yet been requested.

He insisted FEDA had a strong role to play spreading examples of good practice and helping to improve management standards in colleges - an area highlighted as a key concern for principals.

He said: "We firmly believe that there is an important role for an organisation at the centre to support and lead the sector in key areas of development. But that's not to say that such an organisation should stand apart."

Pressed on whether principals and senior managers should be required to obtain a special qualification, he said: "I personally believe we want to be aiming for something that all principals would have. Whether its a single qualification or a continuing programme of development is the area of dispute.

"There's a strong case in my view for building a structure for development around expressed standards like the management charter initiative."

But Maidenhead Tory MP Teresa May pointed to criticisms of FEDA's own management in its recent inspection report.

Mr Crowne argued that the report was a "ringing endorsement" of FEDA's self-inspection. Problems, he said, had already been identified and were being tackled.

Mr Crowne also pointed to regional collaboration and widening participation as key areas. FEDA had already been involved in research on raising retention rates, he said.

He was also pressed on FEDA's attitude to governors. Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, asked what changes Mr Crowne would make to boards. Mr Crowne argued for local authority representation and greater openness, but said FEDA had not been invited to research the matter.

The comment provoked an outburst from Ms Hodge, who accused FE agencies of "passing the buck" over college failures such as the crisis at Stoke-on-Trent College.

Mr Foster resumed the attack over FEDA's research on agency staff. Mr Crowne said he welcomed the flexibility of college staff. However, there were concerns about part-time staff. But FEDA was not currently researching the issue.

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