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Government Needs to Take back Control of England’s Further Education Colleges as Part of a National Education Service

Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.
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‘For the Few Not the Many?’: A Responsible Government Needs to Take back Control of England’s Further Education Colleges as Part of a National Education Service Say Stephen Lambert and Mark McNally

THE government’s ‘Area Review’ is now complete: a development plan which has rationalised the number of further education colleges across England.

Dressed up as an “efficiency” move, the real motive of-course was to reduce costs. To date, Tyne Met College has merged with South Tyneside. And the global player in town, NCG, has merged with Carlisle college – 64 miles way and has merged with Lewisham College in London

Patrick Ainley and Robin Simmons, lead educationalists, believe that the approach was short-sighted, ill-thought out and misguided. Some of the smaller colleges in rural areas, like Harrogate, have been subsumed up by larger organisations like the Hull College Group. This development comes hard on the heels of growing quasi- privatisation of further education. Who runs our colleges today? Are there commercial opportunities too good to be missed?

Since 1992 further education, seen as the ‘Cinderella’ of the system, has been hit hard by successive government policies. The Further Education and Higher Education Act, brought in 1993, destroyed many traditional community-based colleges, remembered fondly as ‘The Techs’ whose remit was to meet the needs of local communities.

‘Incorporation’ – a strand of privatisation – in the nineties meant that colleges were cut loose from councils and run as large sized corporate businesses. The rationale behind this change was to open up colleges to the free market and remove the “dead hand of local government”. Arguably this had a detrimental impact. Tough new contracts were imposed on teachers requiring them to teach classes of 30 for 24 hours a week on top of preparation time, marking, meetings and endless red tape.

Negotiated salary scales were scrapped in some big colleges and replaced with American performance related pay systems. In a climate of shortages thousands of experienced ‘good’’ teachers have been the victims of ‘’re-organisation strategies’’ with the result of 30% pay cuts. Staff in their mid-fifties have been weeded out via ageist employment practices and replaced with a mix of the unqualified or young NQTs with a fixed salary of £23k with little opportunity of career progression. The academic consequences of this are not hard to envisage. Profit before performance.

Subject to a sterile sea of New Right management speak such as “corporate touch down space strategies”’ and “learning hubs”, some tutors have been downgraded to the status of ‘’instructors’’ or ‘’mechanistic technicians’’ facilitating groups of students glued to a computer screen for half the week under the guise of ‘e-learning’. Some of the curriculum provision is “outstanding” in colleges like New College or Gateshead. However, some is either ‘’in need of improvement’’ or “inadequate” like that of the international “virtual college” Learn-Direct.

To some critics, the leadership culture in some of the larger institutions is based on the old Soviet model with an unhealthy emphasis on ‘’fear and control’ with a pre-occupation on “empire building” while at the same time stifling grassroots initiative and enterprise. Some of these places have lost focus. Learners and apprentices deserve better say Ofsted.

In the last decade an army of quality controllers have carved out lucrative careers to support colleges as “business units” striving to meet ‘targets’ or ‘outcomes, not to mention a battalion of private sector ‘consultants’. As Ainley notes in his book ‘Betraying a Generation’ this money “could be more effectively used directly supporting young people” or at least put into student hardship funds.

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According to the teachers’ body NEU, stress, anxiety and workplace bullying is a key feature of the sector. The job has become increasingly “proletarianised” in the last decade with teachers lacking any real control over their work in the classroom. It’s small wonder that hundreds of decent teachers are leaving the profession in their droves to work in the private sector or abroad.

Meanwhile, the “marketization” of further education, has led to Principals being re-branded as CEOs with eye watering salaries. A dozen top college bosses in 2017 command “double bubble” – Prime Ministerial salaries of between £200 to 400k with perks like private health care and company cars, regardless of performance or Ofsted inspections.

NCG paid it chief executive £278k, its director of finance £201k and its Principal £160k – including bonuses and pensions while the former chair of Governors trousered an annual stipend of £30k as non-executive director of Intrain, the company’s independent training provider.

As Simmons and Smythe point out in their new book, ‘Education and the Working Classes’, the huge incomes of college ‘super managers’ is not a measure of their individual contribution to increased productivity, rather a reflection of their ability to set their own salary and bonus levels – in conjunction with College Chairmen!

Organisations such as NCG and its neighbours the HCG and Doncaster Education City, till three years ago, had grandiose dreams of building massive education empires, some global in range with a notable presence in China, with discrete local colleges. Likewise, many of these “corporations” operate in secret lacking any democratic accountability. Governing body meetings, where and when they exist, are not open to the public or media. Most Boards are packed out with handpicked businessmen with no educational management or teaching experience. Few, if any, local councillors sit on these bodies and there is an absence of representation from the wider community and Third sector too.

Although bringing about a wealth of commercial expertise, there’s a clear need to ‘’democratise’’ these bodies with a diverse range of people such as teachers, learning assistants, parents and students. As the academic Danny Dorling recommends even the dinner-lady may have something to offer given that she’s at the front-line in serving meals to students every day!

A responsible government must take back control of the FE sector as part of a National Education Service. Six of 10 youngsters aged 16 to 19 (mainly from working class backgrounds) attend their local college. The promise of a better-funded publicly accountable further education service based on cooperation rather than competition; improved pay for teachers and support staff, cap on executive pay, a much needed remodelling of apprenticeships and vocational education supported with student grants would go some way towards improving matters.

There’s a pressing need to bring about greater democratic accountability into governance arrangements which better reflects the communities in which they serve. It works well in devolved Wales, where all colleges, have been “de-incorporated” since 2001. Governance scrutiny and overview arrangements remain robust and educational standards are high.

We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the English learner should come first and not the Far East the nation’s key economic competitor: Blyth not Beijing, Dunston not Dubai, Sunderland not Singapore and Middlesbrough not Malaysia. Our colleges must serve the many and not the few.

Stephen Lambert and Mark McNally run the social enterprise company Education4Democracy. Both are Ofsted approved former College lecturers.

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