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Government Must Take back Control of the Further Education Sector if it’s serious in meeting the Needs of the many and not just the few.

THE government launched an ‘Area Review’ in 2015: a strategic plan to rationalise the number of further education colleges across England. In the North-East region there are about 16 colleges – some of which are 15 miles away from each other such as Bishop Auckland and Northumberland College.

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 just merged with Le Soc Co. (Known to the locals as Le Tesco), London – 300 miles south of the River Tyne much to the dismay of Lewisham Borough Council.

Those on the centre-left, rightly believe, that the strategy was short-sighted, ill-thought out and misguided. Some of the smaller colleges mostly in rural disadvantaged areas have been gobbled up by larger organisations: a generation of learners have been abandoned. Potential students will no longer be able to access courses due to lack of public transport. This development comes hard on the heels of growing centralisation of further education. So, who runs our colleges today?

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’ (technical colleges) 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 LEAS and run as large sized 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 40 for 24 hours a week on top of preparation time and endless red tape.

Negotiated salary scales with the teaching unions were scrapped in some 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 NQTs aged 22 with a fixed salary of £22,000 with no opportunity of career progression.

Subject to a sterile sea of Thatcherite neo-liberal 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 provision is ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ like the Chef’s and Aviation Academies at Newcastle College. However, a significant minority is ‘poor’ and irrelevant to the needs of the economy as revealed by the former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw in his annual Ofsted report in 2016.

To some critics, the management culture in some of the larger institutions is based on the old communist East German model with an unhealthy emphasis on ‘fear and control’,’ whilst a small number of the larger groupings have a ‘fanscistic infrastructure’ allowing far-right individuals to infiltrate the sector. Further up the pedagogic food chain, a tiny, but growing number of ‘Walter Mitty’ characters have got the top jobs.

According to Patrick Ainley, professor of Education at Greenwich University, ‘learning walks’’ have been introduced in many colleges which involves 3 managers sitting in on lesson tapping into a lap-top while observing the teacher. Failure to achieve a grade 2 (‘’good’’) or higher results in the hapless teacher being put on the sinister ‘capability procedure’. Yet the same tutor gets his/her loyal students through tough A-level exams.

Although Ofsted rightly has the duty to inspect ‘learning and teaching’ every four years, many colleges now hire outside bodies made up of ‘retirees’ on generous public sector pensions to conduct ‘lesson observations’ on an annual basis. These people are paid up to £400 per day – money which could be spent on learning and students. Yet OFSTED, the watchdog, no longer carries out individual lesson observations. The educationalist Robert Coe of Durham University notes when it did there was no link between the grade given and the end result – namely student success rates.

According to the lecturers professional association UCU, stress, anxiety and workplace bullying is a key feature of the sector. Cary Cooper, one of the country’s top management psychologists, argues that teaching remains the second most stressful job behind social work. To the educationalist Professor Robin Simmons of Huddersfield university, 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 in excess of 180 grand a year. A dozen top college bosses in 2017 command ’double-bubble’- post- Prime Ministerial salaries of between £200 to 400k regardless of performance.

According to a detailed probe by the Taxpayers Alliance the former maverick boss of Newcastle College Group, Dame Jackie Fisher MBE prior to her early retirement at the age of 57 in 2013, was coining it in on yearly salary in excess of £293,764 coupled with bonus payments of £54,090, private health care and final-salary local government index-linked pension. The then PM David Cameron slammed the Board of Governors decision to award this sum as ‘highly irresponsible’.

More evidence of ‘monetisation’ can be seen in the appointment of Principals, Assistant Principals and a battalion of quality controllers. – more than in Thomas the Tank Engine! None of these people ‘teach’ as part of their weekly duties: their time being consumed in a succession of meetings and ‘strategic workshops’.

Organisations such as NCG and its neighbour the Hull College Group, till two 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, some 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. Recorded minutes are kept secret. . 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.

With the advent of devolution in Wales, the Welsh Assembly in 2001 decied to ‘’incoporate’’ further education and focus on what colleges (know to the older generation as the ‘old Techs’) had always been about: namely centres for post-16 vocational educations and training; GCSE and A-level provision; adulty and community education; quality three-year apprenticeships with day release for fitters, sparkies, brickies and hairdressors. In other words prioritising the needs of local communities, public sector bodies, business, not-for-profit voluntary associations and social enterprises, not the Far East or Dubai, the nation’s principal economic competitors. Colleges need to rebrand themselves as Community Colleges and shed their bureaucratic baggage and rigid hierarchies as we progress into the twenty-first century.

Curriculum provison must be of a high quality like Germany, France or Japan not the United States: wise up not dumb down.

A responsible government must take back control of the further education sector which educates over six of out 10 16 to 19- year olds, apprentices and hundreds of thousands of adults returning to learning. We need to see the return of Directors of Education and Enterprise located in our town halls. The ‘Area Review’ strategy needs to be shelved..

Further amalgamation would simply end up creating unaccountable ‘Titan colleges’ headed up by ‘fat cats’ as well as being geographically and socially inaccessible to potential learners. 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 Wales where all colleges have been ‘de-incorporated’ since 2001.

To take back strategic control of the further education sector, the setting up of regional combined authorities in on Teeside, North of the Tyne, Greater Manchester and Merseyside offers a prime opportunity for scrutiny and overview of what these 300 odd colleges are doing in the second decade of the c21st.

The DfE must pledge the establishment of regional Standards Boards or scrutiny and overview committees to weed out recent allegations of wrongdoing, cronyism and corruption which has affected the larger English College groups such as Doncaster Education City and there’s strong case for a cap of £150k on all CEO, University Vice-Chancellor and Academy Prinicipal’s annual salaries.

At the end of the day we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the UK learner should come first: Sunderland not Saudi, Coventry not China and Plymouth not Peking!

According to the latest Ofsted annual report less than 70% of colleges are cutting the mustard. Over one third have been branded as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’. The FE sector must serve the many and not the few if we’re serious about creating a more cohesive society and inclusive communities while meeting the needs of the national economy.

Stephen Lambert is Founder and Director of Education4Democracy. A former FE college lecturer and Manager and school governor Stephen is a Newcastle City Councillor. He writes in a personal capacity.

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