Pat Bacon is President of the Association of Colleges

Another phrase has entered the landscape of the further education system. Coined in Lord Mandelson’s Skills Strategy, earned autonomy proposes the prize of greater flexibility for the best performing colleges. It would start to create the opportunity for college leaders to use the flexibilities of funding virement - moving funding between different types of budgets - to respond more effectively to the communities they serve.

This direction of travel is supported by the Association of Colleges because it signals a move from a state controlled system with silos of funding, to the concept of national priorities with local flexibility. It also signals a growing trust in the college sector.

If we have a concern it is that it is not bold enough. Earned autonomy should be the norm and something to be lost if quality or delivery fails. It is not, after all, the college which benefits but ultimately the community of students, employers and partners who find more effective solutions at a local level.

No other sector of education is as responsive or focussed on the student colleges deliver on Government priorities, we are at the forefront of quality improvement and we achieve high levels of student success and satisfaction. Colleges accept both the disciplines of the marketplace as well as the accountability of public service.

One of the welcome signals is the proposal which is popularly referred to as ‘food labelling’. Chris Humphries, chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, produced the Ambition 2020 paper last year; one of its key proposals was to empower learners by introducing a traffic light system to signal quality. Colleges have been quick to see the potential of this proposal and are already volunteering to work up the new system. While Chris saw the importance of learner choice, he also recommended that the system should be sector devised, and owned; not imposed.

By contrast the Government has been slow to hear this message. Already the Skills Strategy sees this as Civil Service-devised and layered on top of the existing Framework for Excellence. This is despite the failure of the Framework as yet to become fit for purpose. One collective failure of policy for colleges is that we always seem to find new initiatives layered on top of existing processes. We see this in the overly complex funding, quality and audit arrangements.

For college principals attempting to make sense of the funding allocations for 2010/11, arguably neither the issue of autonomy nor quality measures are primary concerns. AoC is currently gathering information from the sector but initial responses show that colleges such as St Helens stand to see reductions of £1m or more against current levels of income. Targets for efficiency gains mean that there is no increase in the resource per learner. While Ed Balls’ department achieved a good outcome for the following year with modest growth, the Skills Funding Agency will need to find £340m of cuts. Colleges are receiving allocations for adult learning at between 90% and 75% of current levels. This continues a trend of yearly decreases to support adults.

In addition there is uncertainty about funding to support Train to Gain, Foundation Learning and Apprenticeships beyond March 2010 for some of this activity, and beyond July for all. Since part of the Train to Gain budget for 2009/10 was transferred from college allocations there is considerable nervousness about the future.

So earned autonomy for some will be about financial recovery following the capital fiasco; some will be assessing the redundancies arising from the cuts in funding; others will be calculating what they will stop offering in order to balance the budget.

The University and College Union has waded in with the proposal that colleges should be returned to Local Authority or regional control. This short-sighted view ignores the reality of the financial pressures within the public sector. The more rational response is to argue for trust and flexibility so that already successful colleges can find their own solutions to meet the needs of their communities.

We listen with interest to the policies of the opposition parties who do seem to have understood the messages of simplification, trust and autonomy and end-user choice and determination.

Whatever the outcome of the election, we hope that the government will learn to trust colleges and see us as the solution and not a problem.

Pat Bacon is President of the Association of Colleges

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