The sector must do better than to talk to itself about policy

The Association of Colleges’ new document is a classic case of lobbying for sector unity rather than deliverable policy

The Association of Colleges’ new document is a classic case of lobbying for sector unity rather than deliverable policy

20 Apr 2024, 5:00

I like the Association of Colleges. More importantly, I respect them. They were good partners when I worked in government. You could talk to them, and it wouldn’t leak. They were knowledgeable and they didn’t cry wolf. Those three things are important, and cannot be taken for granted.

What follows needs to be understood in the context of my respect for them. 

Their document, Opportunity England, is a classic example of sector lobbying. It reads like documents that I have read from so many groups in so many sectors over so many years. 

It is well-intentioned, which is a good start. But well-intentioned is not enough. Indeed, I sometimes think that ‘well-intentioneditis’ is a diagnosable condition. Its most common symptom is a lack of precision.

For example, it is obviously well-intentioned to say – as Opportunity England does – that the government should encourage schools, colleges and universities to collaborate to ensure a complete ‘offer’ for every 16-year-old. Who, after all, could object to people working together to ensure that 16-year-olds have a smoother transition to the next stage of their lives? 

But what exactly are the authors asking the government to do? Send a letter to schools, colleges and universities asking them to collaborate? I think receiving such a letter would make no difference at all. Convene some round tables? Produce a government report saying the same thing? Again, I am struggling to see this making any difference at all. 

Years ago one of my more thoughtful ministers remarked to stakeholders that any government has five possible approaches: ban, mandate, tax, subsidise and make speeches. The first four work.

We ban children from working in mines. We mandate that schools should teach English and maths to age 16. Education to the age of 18 is so heavily subsidised that it is free. We tax cigarettes, alcohol etc to reduce their consumption. All of these work.

But making speeches and encouraging people? Who cares what the minister thinks or wants? A speech rarely changes anything. 

What exactly are the authors asking the government to do?

A good example of a mandate is the right of further education colleges to speak to year 11 pupils, to tell them that they don’t have to stay at the same school for Key Stage 5. Schools would have no incentive to let their rivals pitch for ‘their’ pupils, so a mandate is needed. 

Therefore, if you want something to happen, please remember these four points: ban, mandate, tax and subsidise. Which of these levers do you want government to pull?

If you want to make recruitment easier for further education colleges, you should definitely ask for a bigger subsidy so that you can compete with schools and other employers. You might also want to ask government to mandate the use of common pay scales across schools and colleges.

But note: it would be a nightmare if you got that and no extra funding. With government finances tight, asking for money and common pay scales risks getting only the latter – which really would be a pyrrhic victory. So be careful what you ask for, and remember that politics is the art of the possible.

I know, of course, that documents like this exist for two reasons. The first is to influence government. For that, you need to take my injunctions above very seriously. They are the route to effectiveness. The second is to represent consensus within the sector.

I understand that you need to get everyone on board. And I understand that this will always lead to well-meaning but imprecise documents like this. But I urge you, from the bottom of my heart, as someone who likes and respects the sector and sees it as key to building a wealthy and contented society for all: please, work hard to make stakeholders within your sector understand that the way to influence government is to be precise.

If politics is the art of the possible, then lobbying should be the art of the achievable. The route to influence that changes lives for the better is to make demands that government – and ideally one Secretary of State alone – can deliver. Sadly, this report does not do that.

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