Further education colleges need less red tape, simpler funding and support that does not stifle autonomy to thrive. Can the Learning and Skills Council provide the right conditions? Tony Tysome reports.
Further education is facing a crisis of confidence on top of financial problems as MPs begin a second probe into issues affecting the troubled sector.
Just six months after the Learning and Skills Council took over the whole of post-16 education and training, its chief executive, John Harwood, is heading off heavy criticism of the LSC and his leadership style from college principals.
Members of the House of Commons' education select committee are expected to give Mr Harwood a rough ride when he is questioned by them on issues raised by college chiefs and others next Monday. They will be looking for assurances that the new sector, which is meant to be leading the way with training and widening participation initiatives backed by an annual £188 million budget, is on course to achieve the government's targets.
The Association of Colleges, which presented its evidence to the committee last Wednesday, has pulled no punches in its assessment of the LSC's performance so far. It said the council had done little to improve on the legacy of the Further Education Funding Council - an overly complex and bureaucratic system of funding and audit - along with a continuing funding squeeze and an erosion of institutional autonomy.
In fact, according to John Brennan, the AoC's director of FE development, the LSC is in danger of making matters worse on a number of important fronts. He told The THES that it seemed almost all of the LSC's failings to date have emerged as a lack of a coherent communications strategy.
He said: "They failed at an early stage to put a set of arrangements in place for telling people what they were doing. Although belatedly that has begun to be put right, they are reaping the whirlwind of their earlier failure."
The most spectacular communications debacle came three weeks ago when Mr Harwood was heard on the BBC's Today programme telling the nation that 40 per cent of FE provision was "unacceptable" and 5 per cent "appalling". The "unacceptable" tag turned out to be Mr Harwood's interpretation of the former FEFC inspectorate's "satisfactory" grading. Mr Harwood claimed he was misrepresented by the programme. But the damage was done and he has been forced to apologise.
Many college principals were incensed by Mr Harwood's remarks. Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, said some FE heads had remarked that Mr Harwood had "done for FE what Gerald Ratner did for the jewellery industry".
Annette Zera, principal of Tower Hamlets College, said: "We have to wonder what kind of leadership model we have here, when it appears to rely hugely on audit and bureaucracy combined with fairly damning criticism. We are not sure this is a model for success."
Mr Brennan says he believes one of the LSC's key problems is resolving the tension over trying to run an organisation at both a national and local level. The LSC in Coventry also has 47 local "arms", each with their own executive director and staff - many of whom have moved over from the former Training and Enterprise Councils (Tecs). The local LSCs are meant to act semi-independently, responding to local conditions and needs and tailoring their funding accordingly. When it comes to communicating with colleges and other providers, however, the combination of national and local channels often leads to confusion and frustration.
He said: "The council seems to have difficulty in making up its mind what to do even when it has something to communicate. It can't decide who it is communicating it to - its local arms or the world at large."
And he added: "It is a problem, because how do you create a common sense of identity in an organisation made up of 48 different bits all pulling in different directions?" Mr Harwood is adamant that it can be made to work, and forthright in his defence of the approach the LSC is taking. He points out that the LSC has already achieved a great deal in managing the seismic shift to an all-encompassing post-16 sector, with about 7,000 staff transferring to the LSCs under Tupe (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment legislation) arrangements. Now it is turning its attention to designing a comprehensive, simpler and less bureaucratic system of funding and quality assurance, and addressing its two "huge challenges" - widening participation and raising standards, he said.
Mr Harwood suggests there may need to be a culture change to accommodate the LSC's trail-blazing national-plus-local regime.
He said: "In the next few years, the level of flexibility and discretion will grow at a local level, and hopefully we will be able to design a funding system that allows that to happen.
"The consequences of that approach are that things get done differently in different parts of the country. It is one of the issues we have not got to grips with in this country. People want to have the advantage of being able to do things differently, but not if it means they are worse off than others. Other countries with a federal or semi-federal structure have a history of being able to accommodate that more effectively."
Mr Harwood says he will tackle the problems of complex funding and bureaucratic data-gathering identified by college heads. The AoC has called for the sector to be "deregulated", complaining that colleges now have to deal with at least 73 different funding streams and associated quality-control checks.
According to Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, the complexity and burden of red tape has "trebled" under the LSC.
She said: "Under the FEFC there was some transparency, so at least we all knew we were being shafted at the same time. Now it is an amazingly hazy picture, which makes it difficult to map progress. My theory is that procedures are being made into a routine as a substitute for trust. The erosion of colleges' discretion is the biggest threat we face now."
Mr Harwood said: "Everyone I have spoken to feels that the funding system needs to be transparent and simpler. I suspect that will mean moving away from artificial units towards a people and cash system. I am keen to move away from these multiple sources of finance. I want to see a clear payment for a clear service."
On the now highly sensitive subject of standards, he defended what he said was the full but unreported message he issued on the Today programme.
"A lot of what happens in FE is world class. Just over 50 per cent of the sector could get to this standard with the right support and determination. But sadly about 40 per cent of the sector is satisfactory or lower. I know it's difficult and I know these people don't want to be in that position, but we want to help them do significantly better. We have to start from the recognition that just satisfactory is not acceptable in the long term."
Unsurprisingly, ministers are so far backing Mr Harwood's stance. John Healey, the minister for adult skills, said the government was concerned about FE standards and worried that "there is a wide range of performance across colleges that cannot simply be explained by local circumstances".
He said he had confidence in the performance of the LSC, which had "come a long way in a very short time".
And he added: "We are in danger of taking that for granted. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that we have created the LSC. It has taken us 50 years to get a post-16 body responsible for planning and funding. It is helping to develop a different relationship with FE providers with the sort of clout and strategic capacity that the Tecs never had."
Mr Healey is optimistic about what has been happening at grass-roots level, even if the vibrations at a national level have not felt so healthy recently.
He said: "What I think we see if you talk to people in the local LSCs and the FE colleges is a level of sustained contact and strategic interest in what FE is doing."
College heads say the reality is that the level of contact and quality of relations between colleges and local LSCs is patchy. Mr Flint predicts:
"There is a tension between the national and local bodies that may in the end be unresolvable. Certainly it will be a battleground."
Ms Zera said that contrary to the picture painted by Mr Healey, the LSC had taken "a most undynamic, old-fashioned approach, and the antithesis of what we are doing in colleges".
She added: "We have this bizarre new regime where, as if the funding method was not bad enough, we have this dead weight of bureaucracy sitting on our head."
Mr Brennan suggested that in the end, the success of the LSC may be down to the amount of trust it can bring itself to put in colleges' ability to manage themselves.
"If the LSC just turns out to be a bureaucracy that tries to control everything in the colleges, then it will be a disaster from our point of view. But if they create a supportive environment with flexibility and freedom then we will begin to see some improvement," he said.