Academisation: Is this the equivalent of the FE sector’s 1993 moment?

Helen Flynn's picture
Some useful lessons can be learned from the FE sector as we grapple with the full frontal assault of academisation currently at large in England.

Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (which took effect in April 1993), colleges were “incorporated”, ie they were given full financial independence, together with full powers to own assets, employ staff, enter into contracts, and determine the supply of services. As far as governing bodies were concerned, it was a statutory requirement that a majority of the governors were now drawn from business, commerce and the professions, with no more than 20% of governors with Local Authority connections. The overall motivation was to establish a more business-like approach to governance.

With incorporation came a second significant associated change. The 1992 Act transferred the statutory duty to provide adequate further education from local authorities to the Secretary of State. This new direct relationship between the government and colleges was key to the government reaping the full benefits of incorporation. Government now provided funding directly to individual colleges (through the Further Education Funding Council [FEFC]) and was therefore able to introduce specific funding regimes that incentivised efficiency and cost reduction.

Therefore, conversely, despite an increase in autonomy, FE colleges in reality became controlled by central government principally through the FEFC’s funding mechanism. The new funding formula, based on the principle of ‘more for less’, meant that funds could be ‘clawed back’, if colleges failed to meet targets, retain students or if students fail to successfully complete courses. The FEFC was therefore a crucial agency in the new management of FE in terms of funding, inspection and quality control.

A third important change was brought about by college Principals themselves who came to realise that the new task of efficient management required control over the key costs and resources (especially staffing). In many cases colleges withdrew from national bargaining and established local pay bargaining mechanisms.

As a result of all of these developments, the role of College Principal was transformed from a professional academic (usually under benign governance) into chief executive of a quasi-private enterprise in a new and highly competitive market. Some Principals welcomed their new freedom from local authority control. They had embraced the opportunity for educational innovation offered by the national reform of the post-16 curriculum and were keen to assume the new powers to develop the role of their institutions, for example by borrowing funds for capital investments or by offering services across local authority boundaries.

The turbulence in the FE sector since 1993 has been considerable, with many views at polar extremes about the success of incorporation. There has been “merger mania”, colleges going to the wall (over 100 have gone since 1993), and increased efficiencies and a more business-focused approach to delivering FE, set against an ever-shifting political backdrop, especially as regards to funding (funding transferred to the Learning and Skills Council in 2001; then to a combination of Local Authorities and the Skills Funding Agency in 2010).

Many colleges have relished the freedom of being able to control their own destiny, despite the extra rigour and accountability that goes with being “on your own”. At the same time, many see that being in competition with other colleges can reduce collaboration and strategic curriculum and course planning that benefits students. Many colleges have been and continue to be predatory in their behaviour, hoovering up other organisations, sometimes outside of normal geographical boundaries. The consensus, seems to be now that most of the mergers have been forged, hopefully leading to greater stability in the sector.

Interestingly, a recent development in Wales has seen the Welsh Assembly initiating an investigation in to the desirability of reversing the 1992 Act in the interests of fostering greater collaboration between colleges and greater local responsiveness.

Going forward it will be interesting to use the FE experience as a lens through which to view goings-on in the schools sector. But as far as: privatization; marketization; greater government control; and an assault on pay and conditions and the unions in general—it is very easy to see how this may all play out in the schools sector and why it hasin fact been so important for the government to ensure that all schools become academies (ie companies).

One final remark: from April 2012, FE and sixth form colleges are no longer technically state sector bodies, they are now private sector bodies. Yes, most of their funding comes from the Government in terms of which courses qualify for Government funding, and they can apply for Government capital grants. One college principal I know predicts that increasingly other bodies will come on the scene that can compete in the marketplace for this type of funding, and, equally, colleges will be able to extend their offer and enter into other funding relationships, especially with large companies, in order to deliver training and education.

How long before academies are no longer, technically, state sector bodies and are classified as private sector bodies?
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/04/2012 - 12:20

Panorama (2 April 2012) highlighted the problem of low-grade apprenticeships being offered to young people. Many of these were used by FE colleges who outsourced their training.

Two weeks ago TES reported how Newcastle College Group (NCG), which shed 10% of its workforce last year, angered local schools by announcing that it wants to sponsor a free school in an area where there are already surplus places. NCG claimed that local school were failing pupils. This was denied by a local head who said, "If NCG were interested in Newcastle, they would want to work in partnership, rather than in competition. How are Newcastle College suddenly experts in 11-16 education?”

A year ago, an editorial in TES expressed concern about the increasing Chief Executive culture in FE colleges (citing Newcastle College in particular) which he said was undermining the principle of collegiality. Since then, with the passing of the Education Act which allows FE colleges to be run for profit, it is likely that the demands of business will eclipse education.

Helen Flynn's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 15:45

Yes, Janet, points well made.The fact is that what has happened in the FE sector will happen in schools, I have no doubt. That is why it is interesting to root back in time and follow what has happened in FE.

Ultimately the question we will have to ask ourselves is: has incorporation made for a better student experience and results in colleges. (It would be interesting to get some FE professionals' takes on this if there are any reading this.) Looking forward, will making all schools autonomous make for a better educational experience and results for pupils?

Even though I am not a fan of academies, and I particularly dislike the democratic deficit, if it proves that these schools do deliver better overall for children, we can hardly complain. I still feel that most of the academy movement amounts to shrinking the state and saving money in the long run. But we do all have to celebrate great achievements where they happen--academy or not. Otherwise we end up looking like ideologues, and that gives Gove the ammunition he needs to destroy our arguments.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 16:24

Helen - you're right, the achievements of all schools should be celebrated, not just the ones that are in the DfE's preferred group. The achievements of non-academy schools have been all but ignored while praise is heaped on academy heads, free school proposers and academy chains. That's why I blogged a few weeks ago about the achievements of some schools in a small area of south Lincolnshire and Rutland. Some of these are community schools and some are converter academies. I made no distinction and gave praise where it was due. I wish Mr Gove, Lord Hill et al would do the same.

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