Stop tinkering with FE before another doomed organisation is set up (you only have to look back a few years),
says Anne Nicholls

And so, the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) is to close this August after barely four years, as plans for an FE Guild are put together. David Hughes, chair of the guild’s steering group, has enthusiastically argued the need for a new organisation to unite the learning and skills sector.  But many people with long memories are rolling their eyes and saying: “Not another one.”

Let’s look at the development of some of these sector organisations. The saga reads like a Restoration farce, full of divorces and remarriages, plus a few births.

LSIS was formed from a “marriage” between the Quality Improvement Agency for Lifelong Learning (QIA) and the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, which had been created by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which was split into two in 2006 – one part becoming the QIA (which then morphed into LSIS) and the other the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) … if you follow my drift.

The story started in 1995 when the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) was set up as a merger between the Further Education Unit and the Staff College –  a seemingly perfect marriage.

But the relationship went pear shaped in 1997 when FEDA got into financial difficulties. In stepped Chris Hughes as the new chief executive and in 2000 FEDA acquired a new name, the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA). Hughes got the organisation back into solvency with a strategy of winning big government-led contracts.

I joined the LSDA in 2001 as communications manager. It was an organisation that  combined policy and practice, and had people who really understood how to make policies work and how to engage with practitioners such as teachers, trainers and lecturers.

But in 2005 the Department for Education and Skills decided that the “quality landscape” needed rationalising with a new organisation. They wanted the LSDA to carry this forward … the only problem was they wanted a divorce. In other words, they wanted to separate commissioning from delivery.

So in 2006 the LSDA was split in two. One part – the QIA –  became a quango and was, literally, sent to Coventry with a new chief executive.  It lasted just over two years amid murmurings that it was too removed from what was happening on the ground and had failed to win the confidence of people working in the sector.

The rest became the LSN, an independent charity focusing on delivering services to the sector and beyond. That organisation went into administration in November 2011, a consequence of losing large government contracts in the wake of public sector cuts.

Now we have yet another organisation, the brainchild of former Skills Minister John Hayes. Cynics are talking about “a camel looking for a desert”. Others see it as a cost-cutting exercise. The more positive voices see an opportunity for the sector to take charge of its own destiny.

The new guild’s functions are likely to include setting professional standards and codes of behaviour, developing qualifications for those working in the sector, supporting training and strategic planning – tasks that are already being done by other organisations, including the LSIS.

How will it be funded? Will the £48 million from the LSIS budget be transferred, or will it go back into the government’s coffers? Will there be a levy from colleges and training providers? Why is it being called a guild?

A round of consultations is planned this year. If the feedback is positive, the aim is to get things up and running by the summer. Many feel that it is a fait accompli.

Further education has had a poor marital record with organisations lasting, on average, about four years. What’s proposed could be a disastrous ménage a trois (or quatre) between existing bodies. Maybe the movers and shakers should stop tinkering before yet another doomed “marriage” takes place.

Anne Nicholls is a PR/communications consultant and journalist specialising in post-16 education and training. She was communications manager at the LSDA from 2001-2006

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