Sound policies, not sound bites

Further education colleges, which feel they lost a friend in David Blunkett, want Estelle Morris to drop the tough rhetoric, writes George Low
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The Independent Online

David Blunkett, the embattled Home Secretary, was remembered with gratitude by principals and governors at the annual conference of the Association of Colleges (AoC) this week. Many have started to look back on his tenure as Education Secretary as "the good old days".

Mr Blunkett was a further eduction lecturer in Barnsley before entering politics. "He always made sure we got our fair share of the resources," says Linda Butler, the AoC's head of communications. "It made a real difference having a minister with a direct personal interest and understanding of our work. Now ministers seem to be concentrating on the secondary and higher education sectors instead."

Estelle Morris, who addressed the conference for the first time, has yet to win a place in its affections. Much will depend on her negotiations with Gordon Brown at the Treasury in coming weeks. The Chancellor would look for substantial efficiency gains in return for extra funding, she hinted. Some of the college representatives found her words ominous, threatening the end of the general-purpose FE college and a big stick for colleges that failed their inspections.

"I expect to see standards rising and the weaker provision catching up with the best," Ms Morris said. "There are still too many instances of unsatisfactory provision and areas where colleges could do better. I will be tough on failure and will intervene where necessary."

But she was politely told by the AoC chief executive, Dave Gibson, that it was "time for the slagging off to stop". He said: "We want sound policies, not soundbites."

The 400 colleges have hugely increased participation in lifelong learning and higher education. But the funding they receive per student continues to fall; next year it will be 10 per cent below the 1995-96 peak.

The colleges' achievements have been ignored, Mr Gibson says. "Not for the first time we colleges seem to drop off the edge of the political rhetoric. No one person, no one minister or official, is to be criticised for this. But maybe too many old myths and misconceptions still clog up what decision-makers think of us. "

Since April the colleges have had a taste of the new regime brought in by the Learning and Skills Act, particularly the new inspection system under Ofsted. In the first five inspections two colleges were deemed to have failed and none was considered better than satisfactory. Two principals have had to walk the plank and more are likely to follow.

Mr Gibson looks back fondly to the days of former FE chief inspector "Gentleman" Jim Donaldson, who judged that 90 per cent of college lessons were satisfactory or better and only 10 per cent of management was poor. Now the new chief Stephen Grix (Chris Woodhead's last appointment at Ofsted) has ratcheted up grading so that 30 to 40 per cent of curriculum departments are judged unsatisfactory.

"We need inspection to be open, transparent and just," Mr Gibson insisted. "We need to have confidence that this is neither a dishonest nor unjust process; it should be a tool to assist us in our continuing quest to improve quality for our students. Beating sticks are not necessary."

Mr Gibson has a secret weapon: he can claim the public is on his side, even if politicians and policy-makers are not. In an opinion poll last week, 80 per cent of adults believed that "a good FE college is essential to the economic success of our local community" and 90 per cent thought the colleges should get the same funding as schools for sixth-form courses (colleges get 10 to 30 per cent less). "It is clear the British public know and approve of our work, even if certain people in high places still cling to an outdated image of the sector," Mr Gibson concluded.

College principals also have a friend at court. Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, now under inspection, is a friend of the Blairs. Colleagues are confident the Prime Minister will get the right messages about colleges in the end, even if Gordon Brown wants his pound of flesh in the next spending round.

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