Somewhere in the depths of Whitehall there must be a civil servant with their head buried in their hands as he or she tries desperately to square the circle and make the Machinery of Government changes work.
A year or so ago and life in the further education sector was looking remarkably settled. Initiatives had slowed down and the Learning and Skills Council was beginning to win the trust of the college sector. There were signs of a real partnership between the planning and funding body and those who "do the doing". Clearly for someone somewhere in the corridors of power it was far too quiet.
And so in their wisdom the government invented the Machinery of Government (MOG) changes – splitting the Department for Education and Skills not quite down the middle and creating two entirely new entities – one named after the Roman god of profanities (DIUS) and one (DCSF) with a title that no one can quite remember and is usually referred to as the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings.
Inside government there was the heralding of a new era –a time of integrated children’s services from 0-19 with local authorities having clear and unambiguous responsibilities for the panoply of support services for young people and a separate department for post 19 education, training and skills covering the adult market. In addition there would be two agencies for further education (the Young People’s Learning Agency and the Skills Funding Agency) instead of one and work for those aged 14-19 would be commissioned while that for those aged 19+ would be demand-led. One bureaucracy would be replaced by two but somehow it would all be better. For those outside the government (and to be honest for a number within who were unable to admit it publicly) this was more of a dog’s breakfast than an astute piece of political thinking.
As good democrats, of course, we will all be doing our best to make the new system work – although every now and again someone irritatingly mentions the story of the emperor’s new clothes - but as the publication of the new bill approaches, many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Will local authorities have the capacity to take on their new role? Will education command sufficient attention in the new environment, given the concerns with baby P situations up and down the country? How will the commissioning of 14-19 education work when there are funding differences between schools and colleges and when local politics may demand new but unviable sixth forms? How do you define a sixth form college (now to be part of the local authority family) or stop a school claiming that they have one when they really only have a sixth form? What happens to the funding of students whose programmes cross the age divide? How will the allocation of capital be handled and will sixth form colleges lose out if and when they become part of the Building Schools for the Future Programme?
We have, we are told, the finest civil service in the world and in the circumstances that is probably just as well. But for those grappling with the fine detail, we have to hope that they will not let the self inflicted bureaucratic complexities caused by the changes get in the way of some fundamental principles. Firstly the changes must be in the learners’ interests – and that means that the freedom to choose an appropriate place and course of study must be preserved, with money following the learner. Secondly there should be no opportunity for local authorities to interfere with national funding rates. In pre-incorporation days some colleges were funded at a third of the rates of some others dependent on their local negotiating skills, with no obvious difference in quality or the programmes that were on offer. And thirdly colleges must remain fully independent corporations, able to respond quickly and flexibly to the educational needs of individuals, employers and communities without undue political interference.
If these principles are maintained, then the new arrangements can be made to work. If they are not we have a recipe for inequity and chaos and we will be heading back towards the world of 1993.
At the beginning of February the Bill – all two hundred and ten clauses or thereabouts of it – will be published and we will all hopefully be a lot clearer as to where we are going.In the meantime spare a thought for those working on the final clauses of the legislation. Their headaches must be of migraine proportions.
Dr David Collins CBE, President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of South Cheshire College