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Given the strength of feeling within the FE sector on the general state of governmental support for colleges, and in particular the issues raised by the rejection of the Tomlinson Reports recommendations on an overarching diploma replacing current qualifications, the question and answer session that followed a speech by the Acting Director General for Lifelong Learning at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) was always going to be fairly pointed.

And at the Association of Colleges (AoC) 16 "“ 19 Summer Conference this week in Stratford "“ upon "“ Avon, Peter Lauener was indeed faced with a number of difficult questions and statements from an audience still fuming over what they see as unreasonable funding allocations in the face of rising government expectations, with Dr. John Brennan (Chief Executive of the AoC, who spoke to the conference shortly before Mr. Lauener took to the stage) stating that the government cannot keep on "moving the goal posts".

Better Funding for a Successful System

The first delegate to stand and take the microphone offered was Robin Sam from Cirencester College, whose statement drew applause and support from the delegates around him. He began by making it plain that he had grave concerns regarding the rate of change (referring to Mr. Lauener's desire to increase participation by 15% in ten years). He pointed out that colleagues had not been paid, and yet even in this environment colleges had in fact already achieved these rates of growth in the past ten years.

He demanded better government funding for colleges and the FE sector, and said that whilst the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was a good idea and a success, it would have to be held onto rather than allowed to disappear. Essential to the continued health of the sector, he said, is a properly guaranteed long term funding framework for 16 -19 learning provision.

Referring to the models that had been used as part of MNr. Lauener's presentation as the "so "“ called" models, he pointed out the fundamental flaw in the system as he sees it; namely, that there is no system as such, merely an attempt to "dress up a series of improvisations", which he views as "diabolical". He stated that, when he tries to explain to foreign visitors the education system with regards to FE funding and organisation, they inevitably end up expressing their heartfelt sympathy for him! The laughter and applause that met this statement was very illuminating as to the breadth of this problem.

This statement "“ it can hardly be called a question "“ returned to its fundamental theme at the end, with Mr. Sam saying that he believes that the sector can indeed meet the targets set for it; but unless the system actually becomes a system and not the "dressing up of improvisations", the government has to "break out of its strait jacket".

Mr. Lauener's response was measured and carefully worded, and he began by making it clear that he agreed with much of what Mr. Sam had said. He did choose to differ on one point "“ namely, the rate of increase argued by the Principal "“ but he agreed that the current state of affairs did amount to a series of improvisations. He stated that this new programme was intended to create the necessary stable and far sighted environment and policy needed.

Mr. Lauener stressed that the new framework would not be a simple rigid formula on a grand scale, with little local flexibility. Rather, it will seek to encourage flexibility in local partnerships and remove some of the extant intransigence in the system. He did point out, however, that the question of how to proceed must take into account what is already in place; rather than starting from a blank sheet, it is vital that the DfES and the sector build on what is already there.

Collaboration or Merger and Over - Assessment

The next matter raised from the floor was the matter of collaboration between colleges and school sixth forms, or the mergers that occasionally occur. Mr. Lauener replied that there would have to be extensive consultations with learners, parents and colleges on this subject, and that local circumstances would need to be taken into account. The proposals for the re "“ organisation will be subject to consultation, and Mr. Lauener stressed that there could not be a "one size its all" solution in this case.

The final matter raised addressed the co "“ operative nature of policy formulation and the problem of over "“ assessing the students. The questioner welcomed the co "“ operative and consultative bent of the Tomlinson Commission, and hopes that the new consultation from the DfES will be similarly broad and open. She also called for the DfES to acknowledge the burden upon learners and college budgets of excessive testing and assessment, and to remedy this by 2007.

Mr. Lauener agreed with the first of the points, stating that the Tomlinson Report had been the result of "exemplary" consultative processes, and that the DfES would continue and widen the participation in this area. With regards to assessment of students, Mr. Lauener said that there were plans to review the assessment levels, and welcomed recent calls by Ken Boston towards greater technical levels in assessment. He stated that the movement in this direction would benefit learners and also ease the burden upon college finances.

Jethro Marsh

What would you have asked Mr. Lauener? Tell us in the FE Blog


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