WHAT qualities and skills does an FE leader need? Different people will give very different answers.
As the Deparment for Education and Skills plans a new national FE leadership college, there is a growing realisation that the diverse nature of the sector will require an equally diverse range of training.
Some suggest that no one organisation will have the expertise to deal with the needs of the whole sector. Instead they want a consortium to run the college so all interests are catered for.
"You have FE colleges, informal adult learning provision and sixth-form colleges," says Graham Peeke, director of professional and organisational development for the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which has already expressed an interest in running the college. "It's a really broad group. You need someone with knowledge across the spectrum, and I'm not sure that any one organisation will do. We should look at a consortium."
The Department for Education and Skills launched the National Schools'
Leadership College, which provides training and professional qualifications for prospective heads, in November 2000. A year later, Education Secretary Estelle Morris announced plans for an equivalent for FE. Government consultation on this college has closed. Responses are being evaluated and go before ministers at the end of the month. Organisations have been invited to express an interest in bidding for the contract.
Most organisations in the sector agree that a universally-recognised training structure will benefit FE. But they disagree over details - such as whether the training should lead to a formal qualification.
The Learning and Skills Development Agency would like to see the college issue a licence to practise, compulsory for all would-be principals. This idea is supported by the lecturers' union NATFHE, which would also like to see the college offer an externally-recognised qualification, such as an MBA.
Others believe the prospect of having to do a compulsory qualification would discourage good applicants from seeking top posts. They would prefer the college to offer training modules, that senior and middle managers could take voluntarily, according to their needs.
Sue Dutton, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, thinks the new qualfication would be a good "benchmark" but opposes compulsion. "With a range of different people and qualifications, a compulsory requirement just isn't practical," she says. "People can judge for themselves what abilities they have or have not got, and then fill the gaps."
Many want a broad range of modules so the college can train not only senior management, but staff throughout the FE sector. Training is felt to be as valuable for clerks, governors and middle-managers as for lecturers and principals.
"The first person you encounter if you walk into a college is the person at the reception desk," said Christina McAnea of Unison, the public-sector union.
"You want to ensure they have the right training. Many different posts, such as librarians, accountants and personnel, already have a professional qualification. The college should bring together those qualifications that exist, to ensure that they're recognised by the FE sector."
If the training provided by the college is not to be compulsory, it will have to demonstrate its relevance. Governing bodies will only send staff if they are convinced of the usefulness of its services.
But this, insists the Association for College Management, is an essential flaw in the plans. Access, it argues, will be restricted to employees of forward-thinking institutions. Of course, if the courses do not demand regular attendance, this may prove less of a problem. Distance learning and flexible study may increase take-up of the college's courses. And potential leaders may also require hands-on experience as well as courses.
"We need to get away from traditional ideas about how people learn," says Sue Dutton. "We should look at secondment, work-shadowing and mentoring opportunities. It's not about courses. It's about development programmes."
Ms Dutton says that few college staff feel the need for a college campus and schedule of lectures. Most would prefer coursework and assessment to be conducted through Open University-style online and distance learning.
In consultation, many staff said that they would like to see the college offering modules that could address some of the problems faced by the sector. Many, for example, expressed interest in financial-management instruction.
Gerald Imison, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, acknowledges that this would have some impact in dealing with the chronic cash shortage faced by the FE sector. But, he adds, it would merely treat the symptom, rather than the disease. "Most of FE's problems stem from a poorly-maintained and poorly-paid lecturing force," he says. Ultimately, the more fundamental problems can only be solved by more cash. The improvements offered by the college would be of value, but of limited value while lecturers work under the current conditions."