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Cherries for every body

The chief executive of the Association of Colleges is not fazed by the changing post-16 landscape. He is confident that the public and private sectors can work in harmony, respecting one another's boundaries, writes Martin Whittaker

In his fifth-floor office in Centre Point tower, near London's Oxford Street, David Gibson is chuckling to himself. The object of his mirth is a document sent out by a new body, the Association of Learning Providers, which represents private training companies and work-based learning.

"If you want a laugh, the private providers did this sketch to show where they were," says the chief exectuive of the Association of Colleges. He picks up a biro and draws some little boxes.

"This is the Government, and this is the private providers," he says. "The only way the FEFC (Further Education Funding Council) could get to a minister was through them. We were the same, and Feda ( the Further Education Development Agency). It was absolutely barmy."

As colleges brace themselves for the arrival of the Learning and Skills Council next April, there has been speculation over what role the association should take in this new post-16 environment. There have been calls for the association to become a bigger voice for the sector under the Learning and Skills Council, once the FEFC is no longer there to put forward its case.

Meanwhile the mainly private-sector Association of Learning Providers - launched in December in response to the coming changes - has been lobbying other organisations in further education to join it. It sees itself as an umbrella organisation, at the very centre of the new post-16 world. Amid the learning providers' overtures to other bodies over the past few months, the AOC has been notable for its silence on the subject. Does it feel threatened? Not a bit, says David Gibson.

"We have kept in contact with them as they've developed," he says. "If there were common ground, where the aspirations of private training providers and the aspirations of colleges were the same, then it might make sense to argue that orlobby together. But I have no evidence whatsoever of them lobbying as far as the introduction of the (Learning and Skills) Bill is concerned. At no point has any MP in the House of Commons or any Lord mentioned that particular organisation."

So will the two associations join forces? "I don't think we'll be joining anybody. FE turns up with this new pound;6 billion business bringing pound;4.5 billion with it - so I don't think it's up to the colleges to join anything. I think the colleges are very strong and are very proud of their record. They also bring 4million-plus learners a year, so the colleges have got a lot to bring to it."

It is now 18 months since Gibson, a luff northerner, took over as chief executive of the Association of Colleges. He was formerly principal of City College, Manchester. He believes his association has been very successful in lobbying for the sector behind closed doors. Earlier this year the AOC protested when colleges were not given representation on the new task groups, set up to prepare the ground for transition from training and enterprise to local learning and skills councils. Gibson says the association's voice was heard and government offices changed their policies accordingly.

"Our latest estimate, talking to regional staff, is that something like 85 per cent now formally include principals. The ones that haven't have looked at other ways of doing it. As far as I'm concerned all it means is that the LSCs will have a far more accurate briefing."

None the less, this initial omission of FE from direct representation was bound to give colleges the jitters at a time when there are burning questions over how the skills councils will run.

"I understand that and there is a lot of anxiety. I suppose what's encouraging is that we've had formal letters from ministers saying the more people who apply (to the skills councils) from FE and from governors, the better."

And what of the relationship between colleges and private providers? What is to stop private trainers "cherry-picking", only laying on the profitable courses and undercutting colleges? A big concern lies with the quality of private provision.

Gibson agrees this is an important issue, but he is confident it is one that will be addressed. "I think behind all of this, what the Government wants is to see improved success among people going to colleges and into training. I don't believe they will see the quality agenda compromised in any way.

"And I think while there are some very good private training providers - some of the smaller ones that don't have the same care and concern may find it difficult."

Is his organisation likely to reinvent itself with the changing landscape? In March the Association of Principals of Colleges voted to merge with the AOC. Gibson says further expansion has been ruled out for the time being.

"This is an association of colleges. In the future there may be value in widening that in some way, but I think this is not the time to do it.

"People are saying what's the future bringing for us. We need to make sure that that's organised and is in place for colleges.

"At the moment there are lots of issues about transition: what will happen to funding? what safeguards have colleges got? how transparent is the new funding mechanism going to be? how bureaucratic will it be? Now is the time to show some clear leadership and planning."

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