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Why failure has failed

COLLEGES needed to be threatened with failure to ensure the success of a new entrepreneurial culture in the sector, the BERA conference was told.

Since incorporation in 1993, when colleges became independent, many have been criticised for lack of oversight by governors, over-ambitious management and poor accountability. This might indicate systemic failure and flaws in policy, argued Paul Goddard-Patel, former finance director of Bilston College, in the Midlands, and Dr Stephen Whitehead, of Keele University's department of education.

But failure was a key element of the new culture, if not a defining principle, they argued. "Without the real threat of 'failure' the imposition of a quasi-market economy is ineffective in driving entrepreneurial culture... once the quasi-market was imposed on education, failures had to follow if only to 'prove' the veracity of the policy," they said.

The new governing bodies operated as company boards of directors, said the authors. With insufficient preparation for such a cultral shift, it was not surprising that the first signs of college failure started to emerge.

Fear of failure, and of naming and shaming, were powerful, and widespread, disciplinary tools.

"Once a college starts the cycle of decline, hastened or triggered by (sometimes retrospective) government policy, there is little most colleges can do but brace themselves for the consequences.

"But what has been achieved. and at what cost to the public purse?" they asked. "It is clear that 'failure' fails. For by any measure, the financial costs of failure (never mind the human) are disproportionate to any gains. In the short term, all that is achieved is the production of scapegoats.

"If the Bilston experience is multiplied by those of Halton, Wirral, Sheffield, Gwent and so on, the actual financial cost to the FE sector, and the public purse, of the market ideology so passionately and subjectively introduced by the Conservatives, and now continued in refined form by Labour, is both huge and indefensible."

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