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Another side to the quiet man

The Association of Colleges' new leader might bring some unexpected dimensions to the top job, reports Ngaio Crequer

"You might yet be surprised," says John Brennan as he approaches the annual conference of the Association of Colleges - for the first time as its chief executive.

"People might see different sides of my character from the ones they have seen in the past," adds the quietly spoken arch-technocrat.

Dr Brennan is determined that the AoC will make an impact on government, and believes that one of his main challenges is to get the funding right.

"The Government has created a raft of targets for colleges and this has raised expectations," he says. "The sector has been asked to do a whole range of things - deliver vocational learning for 14 to 16-year-olds and encourage participation of 16 to 19-year-olds, to name just two. But there is a question mark over whether the resources will be available. We are talking about substantial amounts of money."

After money comes governance. A document that appeared on desks in the middle of last month has alarmed some colleges. It was a letter from the Department for Education and Skills, which was consulting on a proposed shake-up of the rules regarding college governance.

"One the one hand, it might be seen merely as a tidying exercise - to deal with some anomalies that will arise because of legislative changes," he says.

"But on the other hand, what may be proposed here is a wider review. We have been assured by the DfES that college interests will be taken into account, and that this should not be read as an attack on college powers."

All the same, he retains a healthy scepticism and looks forward to a lively debate during the consultation period.

In a similar vein he is concerned to see the autonomy and independence of colleges protected against the planning and financial tentacles of the Learning and Skills Council. He says that since incorporation the colleges'

independence has gradually been eroded.

There is now an ambiguity about where the balance should be between college autonomy and intervention by the LSC. He cites the recent case of claims made by Ahmed Choonara, the former principal of South Nottingham College, that the local LSC intervened in a clear breach of its own procedures.

"As a public organisation, the LSC has to be open to challenge, and proper mechanisms should allow anyone with a grievance to pursue their case. The complaints mechanism is fairly thin," he says.

He adds that the public needed to have something in place which would give them confidence, and not just an ad hoc arrangement.

The association has been campaigning for the LSC to be brought into the scope of the Ombudsman, a change that the DfES has promised but is yet to deliver.

He looks forward to "mature and sensible debates" with the LSC, which will also have a new man at the top: chief executive, Mark Haysom.

Dr Brennan believes that up to now the relationship between the colleges and the LSC has been "uneven". In particular areas, there has been some helpful dialogue but in others, he says, "the LSC just takes its own decisions and moves in its own way".

He says the creation of the provider performance review was done without consultation and caused a great deal of dissatisfaction. "I want (the LSC) to listen more and to respond more - on the basis of our shared commitment and objectives."

But he welcomes the LSC's decision to restructure the 47 branches into nine regions.

"It was evident to everyone that the structure was not effective and that it was very difficult to run the LSC as a coherent organisation," he says.

"We would want to encourage and support them. Let's see how it works in practice. Better decision-making should lead to more resources going to the learner."

As for the council's claim that it has reduced bureaucracy in colleges, Dr Brennan is not so sure, though he does not doubt that the council's commitment is genuine.

"But it is going to be a long while before colleges see any benefit," he says. "In the meantime, changes introduced have actually increased bureaucracy and made life harder rather than easier."

He cites the example of local LSCs wilfully developing more targets by which to judge colleges, but with no central monitoring.

The theme of this year's conference is workforce development, and Dr Brennan wants to encourage colleges to engage with employers more than they have in the past.

"It is something we have always done. Sixty per cent of the private sector now engage with colleges," he says. "An average college deals with about 500 companies - but we need to do still more to break down barriers and focus on employers' skills needs."

Dr Brennan will use the tactics he has used all his professional life as an administrator and "one-man think-tank": the facts, persuasion and rational argument.

But he will not be the "quiet man" of the AoC. "You may well see some of my other qualities - especially determination. Watch this space," he says.

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