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Year Zero mustn't lead to a new pile of bleached bones

THE FE sector is in the middle of a revolution - yes, another one - this time on funding.

Radical changes are designed to produce greater stability in the financial management of colleges. If a revolution designed to restore order sounds like an oxymoron to you, it is perhaps a fitting end to one of the more chaotic aspects of FE since incorporation, where a contradiction in terms is the least of the confusion affecting the financial framework.

These changes were explained to FE principals and senior managers at a recent conference, by David Wann of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. The essential nature of the change is a move away from an unplanned growth model whereby individual colleges attempted to increase their grant-in-aid through increasing their weighted SUMs (student units of measurement) at a higher rate of growth than the sector average.

And deil tak' the hindmost: in recent years, of course, the deil being financial consultants appointed by the Scottish Office. This will be replaced by a funding agreement between the SFEFC and individual colleges under which colleges, in return for grant funding, will agree to deliver a set volume of student activity.

The new system will be based on the following principles: understandability; equity; the enablement of colleges to be responsible to local needs and national issues; financial predictability and stability to allow easily manageable change. Like clean air and clear water, who could argue with them?

They beg the question, though: if these principles are so obviously laudable, why weren't they in use before?

Partly because of the complexity it is often difficult to work out how equitable the system actually is. But the lack of clarity, consistency and transparency in the application of a number of key variables produced a scenario where eventually most, if not all, colleges thought they were unfavourably treated relative to others.

Lack of financial predictability is a similar problem, and can be best seen as the inability of colleges to extrapolate from a given quantum of student activity what the result would be in terms of grant-in-aid. The end result of all this can be seen in the increasing financial instability in the sector year on year.

Consequently for most FE managers concerned with finance the promised availability of a standard price for a weighted SUM known in advance will mean the ability to plan on a proper basis for the first time since 1993.

However, certain elements of this revolutionary new system have still to be determined - how quality should be measured; what should replace the "grossing up" system. But consultation is promised on these and other issues before they are implemented.

Given what has gone before many will remain sceptical until they see for themselves that the new system will work. If it does work then a more coherent planning framework should enable colleges to establish and deliver more easily their strategy in terms of local needs, especially as they relate to national strategy.

Of course, no revolution worthy of the name could do without a slogan:

at the conference referred to earlier David Wann seemed to be offering

one when he stated that a "Year Zero" would be necessary as part of the

new system. Those of us with some knowledge of history were caught in a rush for the exits until it became clear that what he meant by this was which year's weighted SUMs to take as the starting point.

When Year Zero was introduced in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge during their takeover of Cambodia, the term was used to mean that the past had been obliterated, nothing had come before. There will be many staff in FE colleges, I am sure, who would be happy to adopt that attitude with regard to the current funding regime, happily for us, passing away.

Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College, Scotland's first FE college, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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