There has rarely if ever been a time in the history of further education when the pace of change and the degree of uncertainty as to its outcome can have been matched.
Changes to the Machinery of Government in the creation of two departments with responsibility for education (pre and post 19), the demise of the Learning and Skills Council and the fundamental review of the qualification system are just three of the major changes which colleges are facing.
To this can be added the increased role of employers through the sector skills councils and new quality assurance proposals in the form of the requirements of the Institute for Learning, Framework for Excellence and Self Regulation.
More immediately there are the challenges of planned led funding for 14-19 year olds and demand led funding for the over 19s and for some there are the effects of the establishment of new Local authorities.
If that weren’t sufficient, there are changes happening in Higher Education and significant developments in collaborative working in 14-16 provision.
And on the horizon the introduction of a common application process for young learners, new computer systems around the concept of a unique learner number and the raising of the staying on rate in education and training to 18.
Add to that the challenges brought about by new builds, sixth form presumptions and the establishment of academies and you have what potentially could be described as a “perfect storm”.
Alone, none of the present initiatives could be considered dangerous or even a threat to the system. Most are indeed very positive in their potential outcome.
Together, however, they have the potential to cause considerable damage, overwhelming the further education system by the sheer weight of initiatives. And that’s without giving due consideration to the credit crunch, economic downturn and rising unemployment!
It’s difficult of course to face up to these realities when “everything” is important but there are undoubtedly some challenges that will cause more difficulties than others if they are not met.
The Machinery of Government changes just have to work and that is a massive task in itself. Far less urgent, perhaps, are the various quality initiatives currently under development.
Standards are already rising, peer review and self improvement are happening, so do we really need the Framework for Excellence, Self Regulation or a complicated Common Application Process just now?
Could we not just concentrate for the moment on achieving a level playing field between schools and colleges for reporting student achievements and success rates so that parents and learners have a more honest view of institutional performance?
The same applies to the sixth form presumption and the academies programme.
Wouldn’t it be better to call a moratorium until 2012 when the Machinery of Government changes should be embedded and a sensible approach to 14-19 planning can realistically be achieved?
Collaborative working arrangements could also be reduced at least temporarily to the “desirable” rather than the “essential” category.
And as for the introduction of new computer systems, you only need to look at what’s happened in the health service and closer to home the recent Education Maintenance Allowance debacle to call a temporary halt to any major overhaul.
On the more active side there does need to be a closer look at college funding.
The financial health of the sector is slowly beginning to deteriorate at a time when debt levels are rising.
New builds predicated on stability in the 16-19 market and growth in adults are unlikely to deliver the returns envisaged, leaving many colleges with a hill, if not a mountain of debt, to be serviced.
Given the government bailout of banks would it not be reasonable to fix the interest on loans for public sector capital projects at say three per cent rather than the five per cent plus currently being quoted?
It’s great to be ambitious and to have ideas. But unless ambition and ideas are tempered with reality the result is invariably frustration and unhappiness.
There’s still time for a rethink of what is achievable in the immediate future and what can and should be delayed.
Delivering the MOG, a level playing field between schools and colleges post 16 both in terms of funding and results reporting and stable and fair financial conditions for colleges are the key priorities. As for the rest, maybe it’s time to toss one or two others overboard?
Dr David Collins CBE, President of the Association of Colleges (AoC)