Politicians need to stop vying for control of FE and instead focus on accountability, writes Ali Hadawi

Last week Jeremy Corbyn uttered words that made some college principals’ hearts sink. While he was generally very supportive of the sector in his speech to the Association of Colleges’ national conference, he also harked back to pre-incorporation times, setting out his vision for a model that have colleges work more closely with local education authorities.

But the greater integration that the Labour leader is calling for already exists across the country. The colleges that are working well are already collaborating closely with their local authorities; they are sitting on boards for learner voice, employment and skills, health and wellbeing, and many others. College leaders and senior officers meet regularly to work on joint agendas as a matter of course.

In our case, for example, we work with Central Bedfordshire council and Luton borough council on their plans for job creation, inward investment, community cohesion and housing growth. We have been instrumental in bringing the two authorities together to work on skills needs and community cohesion.

It seems to me that politicians often mix up accountability and control

It may well be the case that the colleges that are working less well don’t have these kind of relationships. Nevertheless, whether it’s the creation of a National Education Service or some other bright idea from central government, more reforms are not the solution.

It seems to me that politicians often mix up accountability and control.

Improved local accountability may well be needed, but the way to achieve this is not by putting colleges back under the control of local authorities. In fact, not only would it add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy – it would be a waste of energy and expense.

I can speak from experience. When I was principal of Southend Adult Community College, we managed to do a great job despite the fact that it was part of the local authority. I was fortunate to work with a team of great people, but I was forced to spend a lot of time shielding the college from the warring councillors of opposing parties who sat on the board. Their fights were rooted in petty political allegiances and ideology, not the real business of education.

The last thing we need is more political meddling in FE, whether at local or national level. As long as education policy is in the hands of politicians, we’ll be swung this way and that, with money spent on changes that make no impact on the outcomes that really matter.

As long as politicians continue to pull the reins of control, they are barking up the wrong tree

The reason why there are still gaps in the economy is not because colleges are autonomous, it’s because, in part, we’ve got the wrong set of measures. By choosing qualifications as the proxy for skills, colleges have become qualification machines.

We should look at the impact of a college on the local economy, so rather than asking how many level two hairdressers it has produced, we ask how many young people have gone into employment. We need impact measures that reflect the business of FE, measuring, for example, community cohesion, skills gaps, aspirations, social mobility, wealth creation, productivity and mental health.

This is the way to get struggling colleges to work more closely with their local communities: change what they are measured on.

I have no allegiance to any political party. But as long as politicians continue to pull the reins of control, they are barking up the wrong tree.

My experience with politicians and senior civil servants is that they want to get it right. However, we have a vacuum at the FE sector level; there are many highly effective leaders, but we don’t have a collective voice.

The sector needs to be better at coming up with solutions to its own problems. Perhaps this is one of our leadership challenges, to start operating as a sector that recognises its value and its impact.

Politicians should expect accountability, but they need to resist the urge to control FE.

Ali Hadawi is principal and chief executive of Central Bedfordshire College