Businessmen top new regime

Women and ethnic- minority candidates are under-represented as the Secretary of State appoints the chairs of the new local learning and skills councils. Steve Hook reports

THE people responsible for the future of further education will be overwhelmingly male and from the world of business.

The chairs of the local learning and skills councils have business interests which range from cleaning companies to trendy restaurants and, while many have been involved in vocational training, those with strong academic credentials are thin on the ground.

There are six women among the 35 chairs so far appointed by Education Secretary David Blunkett and more should have been done to encourage women into the posts, according to a leading employment lobby group.

Paul Convery, director of the Unemployment Unit, said: "I would say I am a little disappointed at the under-representation of women, and, indeed, the ethnic minorities, among the chairs who have been appointed.

"I'm not suggesting there should have been positive discrimination but I think perhaps a little more could have been done to encourage applications from these groups.

"I am also a bit concerned that there are so many people there who have come from training and enterprise councils. The problem with TECs is the Government thought if you have business bums on seats that will be enough. But they became introspective. I hope those people will at least bring with them an understanding of where the TECs went wrong."

Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "As far as the number of women is concerned, I think that is a subject we should stop going on about. I don't think it is a case of discrimination.

"In the modern world, if women want to get on then they can. If they don't want to, then that's their problem.

"I've had plenty of help along the way in my career and all the people who have helped me have been men."

She agreed that there needs to be more emphasis on vocational skills: "We all appreciate there are other types of learning but, at this stage in people's education, we need to ocus on employability. We are talking about work skills."

Among the new council chairs are Ulsterman James McGivern, a director of the Pelican Group, which includes Cafe Rouge and Dome restaurants, and Roger Begy, a director of Lyle Foods.

Business people, especially those with an engineering background, say they will want to improve the status of people with vocational skills.

Mr McGivern, chair of Bedfordshire LSC, said: "I wouldn't be involved in this if I didn't think the new structure was a good idea.

"There is a self-esteem problem sometimes between vocational and academic qualifications, which we must address.

"And we need to do away with the difference in status which exists between people who work with their hands and those who work with their brains."

John Brennan, development director of the Association of Colleges, said: "There are a lot of people from the business sector and, from what the Government has been saying, we wouldn't have expected anything different.

"We have to wait and see how they evolve before we draw any conclusions.

"The Government wants as much input as possible from the world of business and I don't have a problem with that.

"It is true to say that there isn't much representation from women or the ethnic minorities, but there might be better representation from these groups on the national body."

The handful of chairs from universities include Sal Brinton, bursar of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and Michael Malone-Lee, vice-chancellor of Anglia Polytechnic University.

Ms Brinton is no stranger to overseeing change in education. It was under her direction that Selwyn students had to start making their own beds with the abolition of college "bedders".

The latest chairs to be appointed, this week, were: Humberside: Robert Smith, a businessman who is on the board of the local TEC; South Yorkshire: Douglas Liversidge, who is involved in investment and manufacturing firms; West Yorkshire: Clive Leach, another TEC man; and North Yorkshire, Linda Pollard, recently chair of the Bradford Hospital Trust Board.

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