The profession may not like them but the public does. Parents and potential students are coming increasingly to rely on them. League tables are here to stay - and indeed officially sanctioned ones can shortly be expected for universities at the Government's insistence.
The schools and colleges tables published this week (pages 8-9) are as cruel to further education colleges as they are to comprehensive schools since they, unlike selective schools, many sixth-form colleges and universities, take anyone and everyone. This is not recognised in the rankings. Colleges' achievements, even more than schools', cannot be measured meaningfully by just examination grades let alone by the grades of 16 to 19-year-olds the only ones counted when most college students are older. As one college principal put it this week, FE students are often entering a marathon for the first time and to finish is the greatest achievement, not to come first or second.
For further education, the tables need considerable refinement. It would be more helpful if they were to be separated from the schools exercise and developed on a basis more like that which will be available for higher education.
As the Higher Education Statistics Agency data comes on stream for the whole of the higher education sector, across a wide range of performance indicators, it will be possible to generate multiple tables according to varying criteria. Something of the same sort would make more sense for further education. At the very least the sector must continue to badger the Government to find a way to put in a measure of value added to the present tables. Difficult as this is the first tentative steps are now being made in that direction by the Institute of Education.
This is the sort of detailed, persistent work, possibly including the generation of its own statistical database, which a collective organisation representing the sector should undertake. But alas the sector is in a mess in this respect. Internal wrangling between the Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers Forum over their proposed merger is damaging further education's ability to speak with one clear voice and is distracting people's attention from the main business at a time when togetherness is most needed.
There is considerable danger of the merger talks degenerating into a personalised spat between the two leaders. The discomfort is understandable. Both are energetic and capable people though with very different personal styles. At least one, and possibly both, will lose their job as a result of merger. Both have stamped their own personality on their organisation so that more than individual jobs is at stake: the operating style of the merged organisation will depend on the outcome.
Meanwhile there are bigger issues at stake concerning the long-term role of the colleges. Further education colleges are uniquely placed to respond to the local needs of employers and individuals on their doorstep. This is something at which community colleges in the United States have become adept.
Kathleen Noble, president of Aiken Technical College in South Carolina, provided a nice example in The THES-sponsored presentation to the Association for Colleges annual meeting in London this week. South Carolina wanted to attract inward investment. The state government therefore set up a programme whereby it funds its 16 community colleges to provide tailor-made training programmes for new and expanding businesses in the state. Neither students nor companies pay, though both pay for any subsequent updating and continuing education courses.
Dr Noble makes a plausible case when she claims the policy was crucial to the state's success in bringing in 215 international businesses. Aiken county now has no unemployment and imports labour. She also acknowledged afterwards to envious delegates that it would be impossible to operate such programmes, which depend heavily on tutors hired on an ad hoc basis, if she was confronted with strong higher education labour unions. Reaching agreements which would permit such activities here is yet another challenge that requires skilful negotiation - and an end to current distractions.
Of course, the US model will not be directly transferable. But only good can come from striking positive relationships with neighbouring firms, schools and universities. Such strategic alliances, some already of long standing, are now starting to multiply around the country and could get a powerful boost from an incoming Labour government keen to encourage regional development.
In some cases links may lead to FE/HE mergers. There are obvious curriculum crossovers and merger can offer smoother progression between levels. There are tempting financial rewards as well for both sectors, particularly with higher education capped while further education is still being encouraged to expand.
The sad reality, however, is that those colleges which most need rescue are not likely to be the ones most attractive to their neighbours in higher education. There are dozens of further education institutions failing to keep their finances in the black - just how many will become clearer when the final audited figures appear in a few weeks' time. At the same time, as we reported last week, higher education institutions' financial prospects look increasingly grave.
As things are at present, even where mergers make sense for both parties, the split in responsibility for funding between Further and Higher Education Funding Councils is bound to make negotiations difficult. That road block is, however, one which, to judge from recent comments by Labour spokesmen, we might expect to see removed in the not too distant future.