Secret Lecturer: It’s high time colleges stop being walked on


Secret Teacher

Did you know that the FE sector has had to digest 28 policy changes pushed through by 48 different secretaries of state since the 1980s, according to an Institute of Government report on why the UK is so prone to policy reinvention? Or that former education secretary Justine Greening is thought by some to have lost her job because she wanted to implement more evidence-based policies than those based purely on ideology.

Area reviews and university technical colleges are just two recent policy initiatives that are hardly raring success stories, leading to numerous failed college mergers and closures. FE, more than any other education sector, has ducked and weaved around countless changes, bent over backwards to accommodate everything thrown at it, and still returned for more. 

At college, we never seem to get any reasonable time to critically evaluate policy ideas to discover if they actually workable in practice – so many seem dreamed up by ill-informed, albeit well-intentioned Whitehall policy-makers and politicians who don’t understand the skills agenda on the ground – they have no experience of FE. 


Alarming lack of a sector voice

Another issue colleges face is the alarming lack of a sector voice to push through our own proposals to solve, say, skills shortages in maths and English and produce a positive alternative to the GCSE resits merry-go-round. Or to oppose policies that are pumped out by policy wonks with no apparent link to practical everyday college life and that often fall at the first fence.

What we are missing are policies that really score points with and inspire students. Many young people at my college suffer from a lack of aspiration – you can see it in the local employment patterns: most jobs at a large international enterprise near my campus get taken by non-local residents who commute in. There’s hardly an ex-college student in sight.

FE has always done what it has been asked to do. We, like so many other colleges, were told to put on mass maths and English resit courses and make drastic cuts in adult learning programmes. The sector slavishly complied as it has done since the 1970s. Look at the fallout: poor resit results, using up scant resources, demoralised students, mass daily disruption to lectures at colleges during exams when thousands turn up to take the resits. Yes, of course, maths and English standards do have to be raised but isn’t there a better way of doing so? How about relying more on college professionalism?


We should follow the lead of HE

But how do we get to that position? We should take a lead from the far more independent higher education sector, which has carved out its own qualifications and accreditation system in the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and resisted political attempts to bring in Ofsted over the past decade. ‘We have our own accreditation system and don’t need Ofsted,’ says the HE sector. ‘It does not understand anything about what we do or have the right tools. We are world-class. We don’t need this.’ 

The question now is how can colleges break free from so much political influence? I don’t see it as a fight – –we all sing from the same hymn sheet. But we do need to be clear about two issues: first, policy-makers must recognise that initiatives have to be developed within the FE circle and not just come out of the DfE – policy-making in this way doesn’t work. Second, college principals, managers and chairs of governors, who generally recognise they have done a pretty good job in leading their own institutions, have to start paying more than just lip service to collaboration with other colleges and no longer see their role as exclusively promoting and protecting their own colleges’ interests.


Colleges have to look beyond self-interest

Maybe change is coming. My principal told me recently how she’d taken part with other college heads in a move orchestrated by the Association of Colleges to create a mission statement for the sector, something the Foster report back in 2005 highlighted as something we needed.

Colleges have long built up good relations with business and community groups but sorely miss a well articulated, mature and robust sector entity purely concerned with getting things right for the sector and the country, even though that might not always suit all individual colleges. Take the case of institutes of technology or area reviews – two radical ideas that the sector has meekly accepted with hardly a whimper. And have we ever expressed a collective view on technical skills for 14-18s? We have sorely lacked a sector voice saying: ‘Hang on a moment – how do we know they’ll work?’


Take time out to think ‘sector' not 'college'

What’s stopping colleges from expressing a sector view? Is it lack of funding or fears that the government will withdraw funds if colleges object to new policy ideas? In part, perhaps, but much of the problem stems from reforms in the early 1990s that freed colleges from local authority control, turning them into both more independent entities yet now directly under central government control. 

The sector was ill-informed about the consequences, there was no real sector voice, and politicians who wanted to control FE got their way. Since then nothing much has changed. A policy will be announced and there will always be enough individual colleges prepared to accept it. There is no organised constructive opposition. 

The answer is not to pick and choose which issues we collaborate on with other colleges; rather it’s about regularly spending time out thinking ‘sector’ not ‘college’. We need to create a forum where we can pick out common themes we can all campaign on. Otherwise, the funding stick will always be raised. 

Timescale? One college had told me we could sort this in six months; in five years’ time, she said, no policy idea would get through without the approval of a sector voice . . .

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