Blair's low-cost path out of the dark ages

May 9, 1997

DEAR MR BLAIR, Congratulations!

The education service, and I guess most of those who lead our public services, looks to you to deliver us out of the dark ages and into the light of the new millennium. You said that the general election was about three things: education, education and education.

Most of those to whom I have spoken are patient men and women. They realise there will not be any resource revolution overnight - no quick fixes. They know that, initially at least, the agenda is to find a number of no or low-cost options which will make a difference.

The first thing we are looking for is a change of style. The last government created stakeholders - unelected representatives - in all our public corporations. In recent years they treated them, frankly, as if they did not exist. The stakeholders, whether as National Health Service trustees or primary school governors, had responsibility but very little true power.

In education, the pension "reforms" and the funding of demand-led learning are two recent examples which show that devolution of central government's power was more talked about than done.

There are now thousands of men and women who have a position and are keen to be stakeholders in the education process. The message is: consult and use them. And, if you take Lord Nolan's guidance, integrate their work with that of other elected and non-elected citizens.

Second, after consultation please plan. Part of the dark ages was the setting of targets for increased provision and, ostensibly, leaving it to the market and the funding councils to regulate the process. Quality suffers, industrial relations hits all-time lows, controls are only fiscal, spasmodic and crisis driven.

Take the nonsense over franchising. One minute it was a virtue and the next minute a vice. What leadership there has been seems driven to use its intelligence to create more and more arcane funding formulae.

You must overhaul the funding arrangements. Why can the funding councils not be run by the governors who are trusted to run the institutions? While simplicity might be the enemy of equity why can't the post-16 sector be treated as one sector with a funding arrangement that the reasonably intelligent PhD holder can understand!

Third, the god-like status of the market has caused funding councils to ignore their planning duties. Unless, under the direction of your ministry, they perform their duty to plan, in consultation with the sector, we will not get the mergers and reorganisations needed to produce large further education colleges which can work in partnership with the universities. The American idea of two-plus-two degrees need not remain for us an ideal only.

Participation relates to the image of colleges, the ease with which students can rise from remedial to advanced education and the degree of simplicity of the course structures and qualifications available.

Degrees are understood and respected. If only this was the case for the plethora of vocational qualifications. We know that your idea of a University of Industry is aimed at tackling that. What we are looking for is a sign that the countless colleges which share your enthusiasm will be able to be a part of that initiative.

Consulting, planning, reorganisating the provision and simplifying the qualification maze are all relatively low-cost options. And if you do not want to look to the United States for exemplars then look to The Netherlands. The Dutch have done all this. And was the election not about Europe as well as education?

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at City of Bristol College.

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