John Brennan: We need strong, effective self-regulation and higher levels of trust

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The Independent Online

The Government has been setting local colleges enormous challenges in the last few years and is pressing for even more. They include educating many more 14- to 16-year-olds and helping to reform vocational routes for 16-to 19-year-olds - already more of this age group come to us than attend school sixth forms. The Government has planned its skills strategy, but with colleges already indispensable to the nation's skills formation, we have a lot to say about how that should be done. Weaved into these themes is the widening gap between what Government pays schools and colleges to deliver education and the 430,000 place cutbacks in adult-learning programmes, announced to a silent media - but a concerned public - last week.

Sir Andrew Foster's report to the conference on his review of the role of further education colleges will herald potentially radical change. It is likely to include what colleges should be focusing on, the multiplicity of management and accountability systems that entwine them, how well Governments have treated them and how they should treat them, the steps we need to take to listen better to our students and further improve their experience, and how to help college staff to develop their professionalism even further. This will be a huge opportunity for our sector.

The Association is very clear on this first question of purpose. A common thread running through the range of tasks colleges undertake is that they equip nearly four million people with the skills they need to be successful in their adult and working lives. Colleges recognise this economic imperative and we tailor the learning to meet the nation's and employers' skill needs. We are already hugely successful at it and want to be even more so.

But this must fit in alongside colleges' traditional role of helping people to develop, particularly when they come from challenging backgrounds - whether due to poor performance at school, a dead-end job or a difficult family setting. No college wants to turn away from this social responsibility, which in any case supports its economic purpose.

So Sir Andrew's second question - how we simplify management and accountability - is crucial. We know that there must be constant effort to maintain high-quality leadership and management. We are more than ready to see the simplification of the existing system of multiple targets, initiatives and funding streams. The current system of audit and inspection holds the sector in a straitjacket and costs the taxpayer some £500m that would be better spent in helping learners.

In future, colleges must be engaged more in the decision-making processes. And we need strong, effective college self-regulation, that allows for swift and effective intervention when things go wrong.

The principles of the New Relationship with Schools programme, aimed at easing bureaucracy and streamlining inspection, should be applied to colleges. We want to see higher levels of trust than we have seen in the past.

Such radical systemic change is vital if we are to answer the review's third, and vital question - how we further improve the experience of learners. Studies already show exceptionally high student satisfaction - but we want to go further. Colleges need the capacity to deliver learning where, when and however learners and employers need it, and the freedom to tailor learning packages to learners' needs.

We also want to see pride and professionalism fully restored to college staff. We need sustained investment, not cuts to fund schools and higher education, to ensure that our teachers can maintain their standards and have the skills to meet their new challenges. Politicians can forget that colleges compete with the private sector as well as the public in attracting and retaining their staff. There must be a new approach to pay to improve recruitment and retention and to ensure that further education is seen as a rewarding career choice.

Whatever Sir Andrew Foster's recommendations in the coming week, most crucial of all will be how the Government responds. Colleges are well aware of their strong local image, but also of how little attention and recognition they receive nationally. We know that this can't be changed overnight.

But we firmly believe the potential is there to transform the further education sector, creating more and more colleges that are highly regarded as centres of excellence for learning and skills.

At our 10th annual conference, perhaps the Foster Review will allow us to look forward with confident anticipation to the next decade.

John Brennan, Association of Colleges