Dick Palmer is CEO of Transforming Education in Norfolk (TEN) Group, and was formerly Principal of City College Norfolk

From my vantage point working in colleges in London, the period around the 1988 Education Reform Act, and the major developments that ensued, was both a tumultuous and exciting time – both in a professional and a personal context. The new freedoms afforded to colleges were in many ways a forerunner of the freedoms and flexibilities we see being extended today to academies, free schools and UTCs. The experiences of the FE sector during the late 1980s and the 1990s highlight that there were both benefits and some key challenges surrounding this particular policy thrust. And for me, it meant moving to the capital where I hoped to see educational innovation at its best.

Arriving in London in 1987, having been a main grade lecturer in Leeds and York, I took up post as a Senior Lecturer at South East London Technical College (SELTEC), before moving on to become Director of Computing at South London College around the time of the break-up of ILEA. I returned to SELTEC in 1992 (which by then had become Lewisham College), as a Director of Faculty, with the incorporation of colleges beckoning. As my career in FE was developing, so the sector was changing radically – with changes being even more pronounced in London because of the abolition of ILEA.

On one level ILEA brought clear benefits. The authority was influential and provided a strong voice for London’s schools and colleges, with the result that they enjoyed a larger share of the national funding pot than might otherwise have been the case. Great news for London – but not such a good deal for colleges in the rest of the country, in places like Leeds where I had come from or Norfolk where I was eventually to move on to. ILEA was also in a position to provide pan-London resources and support for the schools and colleges under its umbrella – for example, in the form of professional development centres and IT labs that could be used by lecturers and teachers across the capital.

However, all of this came at a cost. ILEA felt like it had become a huge administrative entity, with a very large staff, occupying a big part of County Hall. Add to this the ILEA-run training and other facilities throughout London and you had a lot of resources from the education budget which were not going directly to the frontline of schools and colleges. Furthermore, ILEA inevitably created an added tier of bureaucracy, sandwiched between the education department on the one hand and the London boroughs on the other.

The 1988 Act and the dissolution of ILEA was a first decisive step on the road to independence for London’s further education colleges. Initially this was a mixed blessing as it quickly became apparent that the local authorities often did not have the infrastructure and experience for dealing with colleges. The local authorities knew about working with schools, but they did not know about colleges in the same way ILEA had. Of course this was to be a short-lived problem, as colleges were to be completely set free from local authority control after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Almost 20 years ago, the flexibilities and freedom from local authority control that successive governments have given to academies were being already pioneered by colleges.

In a few short years colleges had gone from being accountable to London’s mega local authority in the form of ILEA, to being directly run by the local authorities, to independence. Needless to say, there was a lot of positioning taking place between the colleges and the local authorities during this period. As with academies today, there was a lot to work out between independent institutions working to their strengths and doing what they saw as best for their patch, and a local authority charged with taking a view across a wider area and meeting the needs of all learners in its vicinity.

The new-found freedoms for colleges in the post-incorporation era brought about a complete culture change. Where previously the London colleges had all been part of the ILEA family, they were for the first time in open competition. With travel between London boroughs being so easy for students, then as I believe it is still now, this competition was real and effective. This led to greater differentiation between colleges. We started building our own unique selling points: promoting ourselves for having a particularly strong computing offer, or for our basic skills provision, or serving the needs of our ESOL students, and so on. Colleges started branding and marketing themselves openly, in direct competition with one another. Increased choice for students in London was a reality that genuinely enhanced the learning opportunities available.

We can see many of the same processes happening today with academies, academy chains and free schools differentiating themselves from the competition and seeking to offer parents and students increased choice. However, what worked so well in the London context does not necessarily translate readily to the rest of the country. Certainly in Norfolk, where I am based, issues of rurality and the availability and cost of transport represent a huge practical barrier to truly effective choice being realised for large numbers of students.

In reflecting on the 1988 Education Reform Act and the path to colleges’ independence, it is also important to remember there were some significant hiccups along the way. If the only accountability lies with the centre, we saw that people will work out ways of getting around it. There was clearly poor behaviour by some institutions, resulting in notorious cases around franchising and financial mismanagement at colleges such as Bilston and Halton.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the college experience, it is this: bring on greater freedoms and flexibilities, as this enables well-run institutions to do so much more for their students, employers and the community; but, this has got to be counterbalanced with really strong accountability frameworks and local measures for assessing how an institution is doing. There is a good story to be told around increasing freedoms and flexibilities, but it cannot be separated from key questions around accountability and an honest appraisal of the limitations of choice in areas outside the major conurbations.

This essay is part of a series in Standards, Freedom, Choice, Essays Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the 1988 Education Reform Act, to be published shortly by Wild Search.

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