What exactly is the Chartered Institute for?

It took an article in FE Week, pointing out the imminent withdrawal of its financial support from the DfE, to remind me, and no doubt many others, that the Chartered Institute for FE still exists. Four years after the receipt of a Royal Charter in 2015, the Institute has managed to recruit a mere 16 members and made negligible impact on the sector, let alone the wider world.  One has to ask ‘what exactly is the point of it?

The wording of the charter explains that the purpose of the Institute is ‘the promotion of the further education sector in England’.   It’s a worthy enough aim albeit rather vague.  The problem is that there are several other bodies around with good claims to be doing that job already.

Representing the sector and championing its cause with DfE and others would seem to be the role of the Association of Colleges and the Association of Education and Learning Providers.  There is little point in muddying the waters by duplicating that effort (and to be fair there is little evidence that the Chartered Institute has even tried). Its public utterances seem limited to announcing another new member every three months or so – not exactly setting the agenda. 

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) seems to own the improvement agenda for FE and again has faced no challenge from the Institute.  It is ETF that awards Advanced Teacher Status to FE professionals leading to their becoming Chartered Teachers: membership of the Chartered Institute is only for institutions.  And like it or not, it is Ofsted that for all intents and purposes judges the quality of FE institutions.  The Chartered Institute can award as many prizes and quality marks as it likes – but everyone knows it is an Ofsted report that can make or break a college.

The Chartered Institute has failed to make an impact in part because it has failed to carve out a distinct space for itself among the many national organisations linked to the sector.  It has failed also because it positioned itself as an exclusive club of exceptional institutions – “centres of supreme quality” according to its website.  There are uncanny echoes of the early 157 Group which appealed to the vanity of a number of college principals but was fatally undermined by letting an outside body – Ofsted – effectively determine its membership. The 157 Group similarly struggled to say what it was for.

A Royal Charter is not something to be thrown away lightly however and it would be good if the sector could get behind a renewed Chartered Institution with a sharper focus.  I have argued previously that the focus should be outward looking – championing the contribution that Chartered colleges can make to strengthening civil society.  Since the nationalisation of colleges in 1993 they have increasingly been seen as simply the delivery agents of a centralised state.   A chartered college should be one that has the power substantially to determine its own programme, the legitimacy of which is drawn from its own accountability arrangements.  Universities have that status; the fact that colleges receive grant-in-aid rather than contracts is an echo of the time when it was also true for FE. Leading the charge for such autonomy could be the defining purpose of the Chartered Institution.

To make this change, people need to escape from the Whitehall mindset that sees autonomy as a reward for good behaviour rather than a responsibility which benefits students and communities.  At its simplest, a truly accountable college is a far better judge of what a community (including its employers) needs than a national agency or even a city region.  We also need to see chartered status and the autonomy it confers as the responsibility of most colleges, not another badge for those few who most impress Ofsted.

Reconceived in this way, the Chartered Institution could engage alongside other FE agencies with key elements of the current debate. There are important questions about how colleges should relate to strengthened local and regional government, about how and where technical programmes at levels 4 and 5 should be developed, how Institutes of Technology and National Colleges might fit into a coherent system, or how colleges should relate to ideas of a national education service.  There is no shortage of challenges for FE and, properly applied,  a Royal Charter should help the sector rise to meet them.