Rediscovering Cinderella.

Dick Evans looks at the Select Committee report and George Low assesses its impact.

Announcing her committee’s sixth report, Mrs Margaret Hodge MP said she hoped it would give the Cinderella service of FE the status it deserved. After the shambles of the mythical White Paper on lifelong learning, which then turned green at the edges before dropping off the tree, a good long look at fe was overdue. With the arrival of the Select Committee’s sixth report we were not disappointed.

This is a balanced, realistic and seminal report with an evidence base which engenders confidence. With its working detail and 50 recommendations it should provide an excellent planning framework to allow the sector to be recognized and take its rightful place in the education and training landscape. It should be a catalyst to reshape the sector and hence play a major part in the delivery of Government policies for a culture of indusivity and lifelong learning.

The introduction highlights a dynamic sector with more students than the universities, more staff than the power industries and a larger budget than the legal system. How is it then that its story still remains unsung? Fortunately, with the recent Kennedy report Learning Works the sector started to recover its voice. This report complements and reinforces the Kennedy agenda of widening participation and responding to communities.

The primary foci of the report, and starting off point for the committee, was with funding, planning and management. It stresses that the sector has lacked national leadership and a strategic direction. After five years of not so benign neglect the Government now has a duty to make choices and explain its priorities.

A key point throughout the document is that criteria for the allocation of public monies should be made clear. The issues surrounding funding methodology revision and refinement are secondary. What is wanted is an increase in the quantum of funding to the sector, which means additional and new money. Specifically the committee calls for an additional £60m to improve building stock and equipment, including equipment for information, communication technology (ITC). It insists that the extra 500,000 students the Government wishes to see entering further and higher education by the year 2001/2 must be adequately funded and this would require £350 million more per year from the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC). Another £10 million should be added to that in order to widen participation.

Most importantly it argues for a parity of treatment between Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE). For example, colleges should not be required to face any further efficiency gains greater than those agreed for the universities, namely 1 per cent. Many of the financial difficulties experienced by colleges since incorporation have stemmed from unrealistic efficiency gains imposed upon them.

A great deal of the report revolves around the issue of‘convergence’ of funding. The principle was first introduced amid general support in order to bring about fairness and equity, now the views and evidence vary. The London colleges’ case for special treatment was not supported by the committee and in this case I beg to disagree. The fundamental issue is that diversity must be recognized. Clusters of colleges do have specific problems and needs and the funding methodology must take account of that. That diversity emanates from geography, inner city, rural, mission and purpose and the increasing divergence of learners’ needs.

One particularly pleasing aspect of the report was the current injustice of the funding between school sixth forms and fe colleges, both sixth form colleges and general fe institutions. The report strongly advocates the establishment of a level playing field, one that is created hopefully by the levelling up of funding for the colleges. One powerful statement stresses that because of the funding difficulties colleges have experienced they are now approaching the critical threshold where quality of service is threatened. It is that difficult balance between remaining solvent while maintaining and possibly improving quality.

Reviewing the financial progress of colleges since incorporation, the report notes that the number of financially weak colleges has increased from 6 per cent to 27 per cent from 1994 to 1997 and this percentage will further increase this year. These difficulties have been reflected in the dramatically altered profile of staffing within colleges: the proportion of part-time staff has had to increase to an average of 55 per cent, 39 per cent being the average for teaching staff. In 1994-95 an estimated 42 per cent of temporary/contracted staff worked over 15 hours per week and this compares with a national average in employment of 9 per cent.

It also addresses the growth of third-party recruiting organizations to provide staff in colleges and voices concern about the way the then Colleges Employers Forum (CEF) endorsed a single provider rather than backing the general principle of high quality agency staff.

The teaching staff in Further Education (FE) receive several well earned tributes for their contribution to the achievements of the sector over the past five years. One important recommendation stresses the importance of establishing certain model conditions of employment, reflecting the fact that it is a national service. Standards should be set for the length of the working week, holiday entitlement, sick pay and similar benefits. Such a national framework could leave room for local negotiation and specific issues but would establish basic standards for the employment of staff.

The section on staff and college development directs pointed criticism at the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA). The committee were not convinced that FEDA were offering good value for money and that its work, particularly in in-service training, did not justify an annual expenditure of some £l0m. Recommendations are made to reform and refine its role to national research and for central government to review its funding.

Collaboration between colleges and universities is encouraged but not at the expense of‘mission drift’ and service to traditional groups. Higher and further education should be based on educational values of progression and transition and not on artificial demarcations between institutions. Access to higher education must match and suit learners’ needs. The report focuses on franchising,which should not distort or deflect the way colleges work or how they are funded. This mode of operation can play a valuable role in the sector in increasing participation, widening access and contributing to a more skilled workforce. Some abuse of this work has been found and a number of recommendations are made to set groundrules in terms of geography, scope and quality.

An important section of the report addresses issues of college governance and accountability. It endorses the current consultation on college governance to ensure openness and equity, recommending the appointment of an Ombudsman to deal with whistle blowers, student grievances and other complaints. The clerk to the board must be independent and the register of interests open to public scrutiny. The code of practice which will be issued by the Secretary of State must be published and college governors must become more representative.

Overall then, this is an excellent report. All the Members who distilled and validated the evidence and then articulated it in the report should be congratulated. So should the organizations and individuals who submitted that evidence. It can only produce confidence and hope for the future in the FE sector.

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