A number of colleague principals have asked why Bedford College sought to become a member of the Chartered Institution for Further Education (CIFE).
We did so because we see the charter and the institution as a strong vehicle for defending, protecting and advancing the independence of colleges when this is under threat from micromanagement and bad policy.
More on this: Chartered Institution for FE welcomes 14th member
Colleges offer the best route
We are strongly of the view that independent colleges, locally governed and charitable in status, offer the best route to a highly skilled, technically proficient and socially just country. The charter and the institution are a logical extension to the earlier objective of self-regulation.
Our decision to join CIFE is not born out of self-interest. It feels like an organisation that will promote our sector and define success in a broader and more appropriate manner than does any of our inspection frameworks. In that sense we do not seek a specific financial return for the modest investment but it allows us access to people we need to influence who have a very limited understanding of what we do.
Even so, our recent membership did receive more positive local media coverage than did our securing an "outstanding" Ofsted some years ago. There is something to be said for a charter that bears the Queen’s name.
Since 1992 colleges have expanded, professionalised and diversified in a way schools have not. The removal of the constraints of local authority boundaries enabled colleges to respond to and serve more appropriate, often larger, travel-to-work or even travel-to-shop geographies. The vast majority of colleges remain local in terms of governance, in marked contrast to many multi-academy trusts. Incorporation in its initial form was real devolution but done on a fair national funding platform.
In areas where demographics have been stable, schools remain much as they were in 1992. In these same areas colleges will have substantially altered, often developing major new curriculum areas like apprenticeships and higher education. Since incorporation, colleges have increased their market share of 16-18s and apprenticeships.
They have grown their higher education provision and maintained at least their share of the adult education market, growing it very significantly when asked to widen participation. Some colleges have created new 14-16 centres or run schools. Most have expanded their provision for students with high needs.
College financial performance has declined sharply in the past five or so years and this is partly a product of a very short-sighted approach to funding rates, but also a result of increased, often comically simplistic, micromanagement by people with a limited understanding and knowledge of our sector or our students.
A prize worth fighting for
This assault on our independence has reduced our capacity to do what is best for students and has damaged many communities. The basic principle that funding follows the learner has been undermined by well-meant but wrong-headed decisions to remove provision on the basis of a single inspection grade, for example.
The recent Augar report signalled a desire to protect the title "college" in a similar way to the word "university". Sadly, the term "college" is so widespread (and often badly used) that this may prove impossible.
The independence and selectivity of the CIFE, however, does offer the sector and government a route to implementation in this area. The term Chartered College could easily be protected, and would be in the gift of a body independent of government to boot.
Surely that would be a prize worth fighting for?
Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College