Ian Nash writes: The FE Guild – a sea-change or just another pendulum swing?

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Why the sudden rush? When further education leaders put flesh on the bones of former FE and Skills minister John Hayes’ idea of a guild for the sector, they found compelling arguments to support it. But it couldn’t and shouldn’t happen overnight, they suggested.

Martin Doel, the Association of Colleges’ Chief Executive, had thought through the proposal with some care. He concluded: ‘The Guild represents the reincorporation of colleges, but with a significant culture change away from their being directed bodies to becoming institutions that take charge of their own futures. That’s got to be a three-year journey if you really want to achieve.’

So, why the sudden decision by the Government (one which took most people by surprise)to hurry the reforms and have the new guild operational by 1 August 2013 – fewer than nine months away? Will anything be gained, or lost,by the haste?

One key to the increased pace lies in Lord Lingfield’s review of professionalism in FE, which reported in October. The review group further developed the notion of the FE Guild, which was then accepted by Matthew Hancock, who succeeded Hayes as minister. There are, however, fundamental differences in its scope and remit, and apparent downgrading with official documents using the lower-case ‘g’ in guild.

Hayes saw the guild havingcharter-awarding powers as a mark of excellence for colleges and other providers. Now, this will be dealt with separately; nor will the guild play a part in ‘intervention’ relating to inspection and quality. Also, since 2010, ‘skills for growth’ has dominated the agenda. This is reflected in Lingfield’s recommendations that colleges abandon their remedial role, focus on technical and economic, not social, issues and align themselves far more seamlessly with HE, with suggestions that FE (other than sixth-form colleges) moves away from academic provision.

The second key to the hurried timetable is the wave of looming further austerity cuts which, coupled with the more utilitarian Lingfield vision, suggests a considerable narrowing of FE’s remit. True, the plan remains to free colleges and training providers from the shackles of governmentand allow institutional autonomy through the mediation of a ‘sector-owned, sector-managed‘ body. But that could be simply because ministers don’t want to take any flak if austerity measures and the new steer for FE fail. David Sherlock, a member of the Lingfield review group, indicatedthis in his latest Beyond Standardsblog. He writes that the government, in transferring the financing of adult learning from state grants to personal or employer loans, must ‘accept that if there was to be less financial power wielded by government there had better be less interference too’. We shall see.

Last month, Hancock said the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)would ‘take forward‘ plans for a single body(the FE guild) to set professional standards andcodes of behaviour, as well as developqualifications.The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills(BIS) is giving AoC, as the lead body for the guild proposals, £360,000 for planning until March. The proposal garnered, possibly unprecedentedly, unanimous (albeit somewhat hesitant) support across the sector – employers, professional associations and unions – and a steering group chaired by chief executive David Hughes was established in early November.

Then, the following Friday, the Government foot was firmly on the accelerator as Susan Pember, Director, FE and Skills at BIS, told Dame Ruth Silver, chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the guild would be ‘operational’ by August, when funding for LSIS would cease.

A key organisation created by the last Labour government to lead improvement in further education, LSIS looks like being the first victim of the Coalition government’s decisions around the guild. Ms Pember wrote: ‘The new guild organisation will assume responsibility for many of the broad areas of activity currently undertaken by LSIS, albeit probably in a different form. This clearly calls into question the future of LSIS as a separate entity and has major implications for its current staff.’

Only a proportion of LSIS’s current £31m core government funding will transfer to the guild since significant cuts were coming anyway. Remember, two years ago its budget was slashed from £145m to £48m. And while LSIS chiefs will have some influence on the guild’s steering group over the transfer of activities, it is questionable how much of the frontline teacher involvement in research and development and other work, aimed at improving teaching and learning, will still be funded. There are fears within the organisation and the teachers and lecturers LSIS funds that this will be sacrificed.

What is unclear amid all these developments is whether the FE guild really represents a permanent sea-change or just another swing of the long pendulum, currently in favour of the skills lobby and sector employers. While there may be unprecedented support, this may reflect no more than the kinds of attitudes underlying the University and College Union position:‘We are supporting it because it is the only show in town and we think we can help shape it,’ said Dan Taubman, National Officer.

Also, this is far from the first time that ministers have promised the sector such autonomy. When LSIS was created in October 2008 the minister, John Denham, told Ruth Silver it would be ‘a sector-owned improvement body and focal point for enabling innovation’. He told journalists there would be ‘no political interference from here on’.As if.

And, as Maria Hughes, consultant with the Policy Consortium, suggests: “If they really want to set up something radically different the timescale is crazy. It is highly likely that the time-table will slip, leading to inertia and uncertainty, and it would be better to have a more sensible and realistic start date. Or is the whole thing a very useful way to cut budgets and lose public sector staff?’

Her comments echo the frustrations of many who, like her, had the same ‘bitter experience‘ of this in the move from the Further Education Unit to the FE Development Agency back in 1995. Successive reforms, tinkering and policy shifts resulted in a succession of agencies such as the Quality Improvement Agency and Centre for Excellence in Leadership, each of which wascreated withthe pledge that it was owned by the sector and would suffer no further political interference – that is, until the next time or new ministerial whim.

The safe distancing of government from the effects of policy reform and austerity cuts is increasingly common, as Mick Fletcher, researcher and Policy Consortium member, points out:‘We see precedents in local government and Scotland. It is a new fashion in public policy.’

The accelerated move to create the guild as a single body to set professional standards and codes of behaviour highlights the difficult choices facing FE leaders in a new round of austerity cuts. The question is whether the sector will be left to its own devices and given time to make it work or whether rushed policy reform will lead to accusations of austerity measures implemented too far too fast.

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