Friday, March 02, 2007

Further education colleges and choice

This week’s debate about Brighton & Hove City Council’s approach to over-subscribed schools (“lottery” to the media; “equal preference” to the Council; “random selection” to the experts) was interesting.

The issue has arisen from the need to manage fairly the challenges of schools choice. (I’d recommend the podcast on schools choice from Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation for background on these kinds of issues.)

For a long time I've been waiting for the simple idea of choice arriving on the agenda of the further education sector. There is now lots of talk of “personalisation” and “contestability” (for the uninitiated - reducing barriers to entry for new providers). Recently “learner choice” has been spotted in the pipeline.

Yet since the creation of the Learning & Skills Council (and to some extent before) there has been pressure for mergers. While some mergers have made sense – particularly where well-managed colleges have effectively rescued weaker ones – others seem to have been driven by a belief in rationalisation and reducing to the sector to 150 or so colleges. There is a real risk that the scope for learner choice as well as the impetus for innovation and the possibility of meaningful benchmarking could be merged away.

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