Let’s not kill off the small specialist, local provider in the pursuit of the Amazon model

20 Nov 2020, 12:00

What’s really behind the Commission on the College of the Future’s recommendation that colleges should have a ‘legal duty’ to create networks, asks Luke Rake

Like many, I have been waiting with interest for the outcome of the Independent Commission on The College of the Future. The sector has for years been lagging in funding, under-appreciated in Westminster and capable of providing a much higher profile role than the one it currently does.

This is not news, and the commission creates an opportunity for us to position ourselves prior to the FE white paper. However, it also raises huge questions about the sector’s future and its structure.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to agree with. My work in the sector and as an independent local enterprise partnership (LEP) board member shows there are times when a lack of inter-departmental synergy in government, for example between BEIS, DEFRA, DFE and MHCLG, fails to ensure investment priorities meet the needs of communities across the country.

People travel all over the place, not according to lines on a map

The recommendation of closer working to ensure sensible and coherent strategy and the drivers of educational provision to match the needs of geographies and learners is thus a good one.

It’s also sensible to recommend greater stability of funding (although it might be better to just say “get the funding level correct”). However, this requires careful managing by ESFA and others to ensure (a) there are opportunities for growth, and (b) a three-year settlement does not allow for crises points at the end
of each period where a college requires a major negative shift in its funding position.

However, the headline already creating the most noise is the “legal duty” on colleges to create networks, which must be matched by a duty on other post-16 providers. My worry is that this grabs all the bandwidth.

Why this duty? I cannot see a sensible way to force private training providers, public sector schools and the entertainingly different “incorporated by statute but pseudo-public-sector” colleges into bodies that have legal status. We already have networks that are functional and effective, whether LEPS, local safeguarding boards, chambers of commerce, etc. So the legal duty is either not required or it’s after something else.

Control? Create large regional colleges that service whole geographies. Well, sorry, geography doesn’t work like that – people travel all over the place, not according to lines on a map.

Protectionism for colleges? PTPs are a mixed bag, but so are colleges – let the customer choose.

“Securing provision in hard-to-reach areas” – does this mean propping up poor-quality provision, or perhaps forcing those wishing to study level 3 to study miles from home? That’s not going to sell to the student in Cornwall who suddenly finds themselves forced to go 100 miles to study. They’ll just stay in school and do A-levels. Seriously, they will. Might work in a city, but let’s not forget the rural dimension here.

Larger doesn’t necessarily equate to better quality, nor does it equate to more resilient, as the massive bailouts to some very large providers show. Similarly, small does not equate to weak.

The challenges in the sector are arguably of leadership and ambition, not scale.

The principle of survival of the fittest does not say anything about size. Competition in itself is a good thing, not an evil to crush with statute. Foxes may eat rabbits, but rabbits are still here and doing very well thank you. True, they might have to run faster, as they are running for their life, not just their dinner.

However, competition has enabled both to evolve and thrive in their own niche. A well-run, locally-minded provider of any type will always work with partners. This is not vertical restraint or similar, it’s just common sense with a hefty dose of moral purpose.

So, let’s push for FE to have its place in the sun, but let’s also not kill off the small specialist, local provider in the pursuit of the Amazon model. I think people deserve more choice on their high street.

Read all sides of the argument for The Independent Commission on the College of the Future’s recommendation that colleges should be forced into local ‘networks’:

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