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Celebrities square up

After a promising start, 2006 has proved rather disappointing, says Ian Nash in his review of the year in FE

IT WILL go down as the year of the celebrity in further education. It was revealed that the Arctic Monkeys were created at Barnsley College, and a Pounds 2 million deal between world-famous designer Zandra Rhodes and Newham College to create a fashion academy was announced.

Alumni from visual and performing arts colleges who testified to their excellence included actor Robert Lindsay (Nottingham), artist David Hockney (Bradford) and former Spice Girl Emma Bunton (Barnet).

But the top celebrity has to be FE's home-grown skills minister Phil Hope.

Every week, it seemed, the hoofer "performed" in public to promote the Government's skills policies. In January he took on darts legend Bobby George - to highlight the importance of maths - but got his sums wrong.

Later, he did the shortest stint ever as apprentice baggage handler at Gatwick Airport. Then there was his stab at sporting stardom, with a spot of rowing training from Olympian James Cracknell. In the end, he stuck to what he is good at - juggling - at a market stall in west London.

Bill Rammell, further and higher education minister, said there should be a multi-faith chaplaincy in every college.

It was a good start too for London's mayor Ken Livingstone, who wrested control of adult training from the Learning and Skills Council. But by February, the employers - seven in ten of whom do not bother to train staff - started the annual bleat against colleges for failing to meet their demands. The first negative noise of the year.

The second came when Lifelong Learning UK warned of a wave of departures and a shortfall of 135,000 lecturers by 2010. The remedy? Mass immigration.

Third, unions said low pay and a staff shortages would scupper Phil Hope's plans for prisoners.

Fourth, and most devastating, Michael Bichard attacked the LSC - which he created as permanent secretary - for failing England's most needy teenagers.

The council announced a cull of 1,300 jobs to plough cash back into teaching. They will need fewer staff in the new world where the focus for colleges is to be on "choice and diversity", specialisation and skills training. Just what Sir Andrew Foster had ordered in his 2005 review of colleges.

The white paper, Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances, put colleges back on centre stage. Building on Foster, ministers said colleges had a key part in forging a new demand-led training system for employers. Despite murmurings over threats to sack failing principals, it was well received.

Soon after, Bill Rammell announced new "stepping stones" - free foundation studies for adults without qualifications - to appease critics of the Government's swingeing adult spending cuts. He offered a few extra crumbs of from the funding table.

In May, the start of the exam season saw growing concerns among lecturers over disruptive 14 to 16-year-olds in colleges - a problem that threatens to explode.

Students were also revolting, with 1960s-style sit-ins and demonstrations over the loss of A-level studies from Cambridgeshire Regional College, among others. They saw it as part of a hidden government agenda to restrict colleges to vocational training.

Late in May, former Tesco shelf-stacker and erstwhile postal union boss Alan Johnson was appointed Education Secretary. He rapidly made his mark on FE at the first annual Quality Improvement Agency conference by rubbishing 70 per cent of adult education as "wasteful" and calling for "more plumbing, less Pilates".

If Johnson got away with it, Bill Rammell did not. Lecturers gave him a rough time at the last-ever Natfhe annual conference in Blackpool (before it merged to form the University and College Union), where he was slow hand-clapped and heckled over pay.

With the summer break came a flurry of official publications - on the principle of knowing when to bury bad news - including details of the Learning and Skills Council's Framework for Excellence, with its much-loathed star-rating system for assessing colleges.

But there was good news as autumn approached: 60,000 part-time lecturers were told they would have the same contract rights as full-timers.

Everything was now on hold for the FE Bill and the Leitch review of skills in the UK, due in November and December. Perhaps that is why the silly season spilled over well into autumn. At times, news appeared to reach the level of farce.

In September, Skelmersdale and Ormskirk colleges invited any other college or university who fancied the idea to take them over. Nine put in bids.

In October, a national Audit Office report suggested 384 colleges wasted an average pound;200,000 a year through poor management.

November and December, the much-leaked FE Bill and Leitch report brought few surprises. Colleges will have powers to set their own foundation degrees, free from university interference, if ministers can get away with it.

The last word, almost, must be with veteran former Labour MP Tony Benn, who left Parliament to spend more time with politics. He slammed the Government's utilitarian measures to impose a skills agenda at the cost of liberal education. And, in a style befitting one of the sharpest political celebrities in the land, he said: "If every job is contestable, I'll do the Prime Minister's job twice as well for half the salary."

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