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Is college bride ready to love, honour and obey?

I WAS very disappointed when I looked at my doormat this morning: two bills, an invitation to enrol on a distance-learning course and the daily chance to transfer my balance to a new credit card. So where was my Valentine's card from the Learning and Skills Council? I scoured the small ads in the papers that carry lovers' cryptic messages, looking for one in which cuddly chops of Coventry swore undying allegiance to his FE partner, and other providers. But there was nothing.

You may be wondering what led me to expect a card from our funders in the first place. After all, you will remember that our affair with the LSC got off to a pretty bad start. We were on the rebound from a previous failed relationship with the Further Education Funding Council and it was probably all too much of a rush to expect domestic bliss from the word go.

But we knew the problem was a lack of communication and too much baggage from the past. Marriage guidance from Sir George Sweeney's "Trust in the Future" bureaucracy busters had promised to sort all that out. He told the LSC that we could have a proper partnership only if they started to trust us more. No relationship can flourish if the partners do not trust each other. And so, about a week or so ago, we got a long - a very long - love letter from the LSC. True, I have read more finely crafted billet-doux, and the title, Circular 0301 "Success for all - a framework for implementing quality and standards", did not immediately set my heart racing, but there was no mistaking the desire for a fresh start which came winging off every page.

In the brief foreword alone, there are three "commitments", two "togethers", three "trusts" and no less than five references to "partners".

This is serious wooing. My new partner recognises that I have not always been wonderful in the past - "there are some areas where improvements are needed" - but is confident that, with his guidance and support, together, hey, we can make this thing work. It does beg the question, of course, of quite how the previous relationship was characterised and why it was allowed to drag on for so long before anyone recognised how dysfunctional it was. But it would be mean of me to ask horrid questions in the face of such honeyed words from our suitors.

There is just one problem, however. This does not seem to be a partnership of equals, but a very old-fashioned marriage proposal. The FE bride, blushing prettily beneath her light veil, is very much asked to love, honour and obey her new lord and master. So, to make sure we measure up to the expectations of our new partner, there will be targets. Just to make sure we are not slacking at home all day while our masters are out earning the crust, we shall be set some floor targets and some headline targets. We do the chores while the breadwinner comes home in the evening to check on our work, run a finger across the furniture to check for dust and complain if his tea is not on the table. In return, we get our share of his pay packet, after appropriate top-slicing, each Friday, regular. He promises to be a good provider so long as we remain excellent providers.

Before you start drawing old conclusions about Cinderella, let us not forget that our new master is no Baron Hardup. He promises to be very generous if we polish off the headline targets and keep the floor targets clean. And, we will all get at least 6.5 per cent more cash next year, no matter how well we have taken care of his children in the past.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is the sort of partnership enjoyed by the judge and defendant, but that would be a harsh verdict at this stage. No doubt there will, at any moment, be a new circular outlining how the bride will be able to monitor the performance of the groom, setting out the sanctions available to us if we start to feel unappreciated.

Because partnership is a two-way street, isn't it? Or are there three people in this marriage? Is there a powerful mistress at ministerial level, with its hands on our loved ones' most vulnerable areas?

So Circular 0301, implementing the Sweeney report "Trust in the Future", is the only Valentine's card I'm likely to get. And I suspect "Trussed in the Future" will come to be a more appropriate spelling.

Graham Jones in principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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