First they came for the libraries . . .

If you really wanted to promote lifelong learning throughout a community, would you start by axing half your local authority’s librarians? 

Richmond upon Thames council may not be alone in deciding to do this, but the chop-logic of its combined post-16 education policies still has the population fuming.

Coincidentally, the £25m saved is exactly what they need to allow five schools to open sixth forms in a borough with one of the more successful FE colleges, an adult education college and no surplus demand for such places. Furthermore, librarians in the borough have – until now – been playing a particularly strong role in supporting schools and colleges in both formal and informal adult learning.

The local authority says it has no choice because schools could get their way, in any case, by quitting and joining the free-for-all dash for academy and free school status, even though the sixth forms will be too small to be viable from the outset. So we can see the monumental mess looming, not only for FE colleges but the eventual erosion of A-level ‘choice’ for sixth-formers hoping for university. Or can we? Off the record, council officials admit that a head start in this race would allow schools to raid neighbouring borough catchment areas. And, if the schools take students from the colleges, so what?

Move east across the capital to Newham and you have an even more bizarre arrangement whereby a group of exclusive private schools including Eton is opening a state-supported sixth form, to compete with an already exemplary sixth form college (NewVIc), FE college and five thriving sixth forms. When asked by the media to justify the move, the new head Richard Cairns replied: ‘All we’re doing is providing a choice.’

But this is simply not true or necessary, Eddie Playfair, principal of NewVIc, insists. In a recent letter to the Guardian, having analysed the demographics, he said: This project is far from being a response to genuine local need. In fact it risks dissipating scarce funding and segregating young people. It may suit its advocates to ignore the facts and promote themselves as sponsors of social mobility, but their track record so far is the precise opposite.’

All this arises from the Coalition Government granting new ‘freedoms’. Ministers claim to be tackling disadvantage by freeing institutions to follow the market, but that is not how increasingly beleaguered further education staff and managers I have spoken to see it. They watch with alarm as the likes of former Express Journalist Toby Young and the head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh – darling of the 2010 Tory party conference where she chose to rubbish her comprehensive school – both plan new academically elitist schools where there will be no skills teaching under the age of 16.

So what is the solution?

To an increasing extent there is an attitude of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ And so we see Barnfield college pushing to become the first FE college for profit and pleasure, Birmingham Metropolitan and Stockport are talking about going mutual, and all colleges are talking to one another about shared services agreements. Then there is the Gazelle group of colleges out to promote entrepreneurship ‘grazing in the wide open spaces of the savannah that is FE’ as Dan Taubman, senior national education official for the UCU described it to me. Also, we have Ofsted chief Michael Wilshire positively encouraging colleges to reach out – forget the depleted resources – and sponsor academies.

But haven’t we been here before? Many will recall with horror the enterprising zeal of the 1990s – an earlier age of austerity and cuts described as ‘efficiency savings’ – that went rotten. Then, I was FE Editor on the TES and remember Further Education Funding Council Chief Executive, William Stubbs, berating me for failing to report on the ‘genius’ of entrepreneurial colleges, which he named: Halton, Bilston, Clarendon, Stoke-on-Trent etc. Ministerial confidence that nothing could or would go wrong in any of these establishments was equally unwavering.

But when the press did report on them it was for entirely different reasons – either they were reckoned to have failed spectacularly, as with Derby Wilmorton and Bilston, or were victims of malpractice and inadequate governance and leadership. Whistleblowers from within Natfhe were invariably the media’s sources of intelligence, while ministers continued in a state of denial. Inquiries by luminaries, such as Shattock on Wilmorton and Nolan on ethics ensued, resulting in the red tape and constraints which the government is now dismantling.

Bilston is probably the closest to an example of what is emerging now, with the college spanning all sorts of mini colleges, often based on good intentions located in and often run by local communities Big Society-style. In the end, however, it was one of a group of ‘rogue’ colleges accused of defrauding the government of millions by misusing educational funds, a claim that is contested by some to this day.

With new structures, new governance and new partnerships being promoted, following BIS’s tearing up of the model instruments and articles of governance, who is to say history will not repeat itself?

Already, we have seen how easily funding freedoms around Apprenticeships have been exploited, as reported recently on the BBC Panorama show ‘The Great Apprenticeship Scandal’, which found upwards of £250m wasted last year.

Having followed this throughout very closely, I reckon none of this would have been exposed – or at least not until much worse damage had been done – were it not for the dogged persistence of Nick Linford, Managing Editor of the new brash player in the education media FE Week. His accusations and claims of misuse, waste of funds and short 12-week training programmes masquerading as Apprenticeships were repeatedly rejected at press conferences by Simon Waugh, Chief Executive of the National Apprenticeship Service, who stood down last month. He insisted NAS was monitoring and assuring quality. But evidence mounted and Opposition MPs, notably Gordon Marsden, railed against them until the FE and Skills Minister John Hayes took action.

But that was not before he announced a record 440,000 learners starting an apprenticeship in 2010-11 – a figure that surely must be radically revised downwards in the light of the evidence. Can training schemes such as those at Morrisons supermarket, which has enrolled 40 per cent of its workforce on an apprenticeship with the private training provider Elmfield Training, really be deemed full Apprenticeships? What does this do to the brand image? And is it ethical that Mr Gerard Syddall, Elmfield’s director, should take a £3m dividend from a budget that came wholly from the SFA?

And it was not until the eve of the Panorama programme that Hayes announced that from now on all apprenticeships must be at least 12 months duration – nine months after the Skills Funding Agency had promised a crackdown on fraud and misuse of public money in the FE and skills sector, while admitting it was likely to get worse under government’s new sub-contracting arrangements. The extent of the concern was revealed in communications, leaked to FE Week between Geoff Russell, chief executive of the SFA, and Hayes. £11m had been lost to fraud or misuse in 2010-11 of which only £3m was accounted for. Police were involved in nine investigations, said the letter which revealed that the agency was pursuing 88 new allegations – ‘a record high’.

The real irony is that were the same rules and regulations that grew under Shattock, Nolan and the rest still in place, cowboy operations, exploitation, dead weight funding and excessive dividends from Apprenticeship schemes would be subject to ethical inquiries and in some cases deemed corrupt. What started under Labour as Train to Gain, where employers were rewarded for staff skills training they should have paid for themselves, continued under the Coalition in the guise of Apprenticeships.

Someone has to intervene and make sense of the disparate conflicting strands of education training policy before it is too late. This is a view emerging from the Parliamentary Skills Group, which I addressed at a recent seminar where concerns were expressed over the lack of joined up government. This is exemplified locally by Richmond upon Thames’s policies on cuts and nationally by a lack of synergy or coherence between DFE and BIS to the point where, to quote one speaker at the seminar, policies ‘may cut against each other’ with unintended and damaging consequences.

This seems to be increasingly the state of affairs between schools and FE where, if we are not careful, we will have an ultimately destructive free for all with the notion of ‘Winner take all’ which will not include the most disadvantaged.




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