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Colleges find their Mr Fixit;FE Focus;Interview;Dennis Turner

Ngaio Crequer looks at the priorities for the new Further Education Parliamentary Committee and meets its chairman

THEMAN who fixed it for MPs to watch the World Cup on their own giant screens is now trying to fix it for FE.

Dennis Turner, the Wolverhampton South East MP, has rejuvenated a Palace of Westminster lobby group - and has already set a date with David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, for its first meeting.

Mr Turner, whose other claims to fame include being Clare Short's parliamentary private secretary and the man who saved you from paying for the froth on your pint, is to chair the powerful lobby group to promote FE's interests.

In the last Parliament Mr Turner, who attended Bilston College of FE, tried to get FE on the national agenda but colleges had only recently been incorporated and he encountered government apathy.

Mr Turner said: "It was a kind of wait and see period, nobody seemed to know quite how to respond. We had meetings with Conservative ministers but they found it difficult to respond to our financial needs.

"Tim Boswell (the former Tory further education minister and now a member of the FE group) was fighting the corner for FE but was stymied by colleagues in the Treasury. There has been a cycle of decline since 1992."

But with the new Government came new hope for FE. Mr Turner said: "We had a lot of new MPs who entered in 1997 and there is much greater interest shown in FE than there was from the intake in the last Parliament.

"We started the group originally in 1989. We have re-awakened interest at our recent meeting. Our first task is to to make sure we have a really positive impact on this commitment to the FE sector. This is a crucial role we can play.

"We are sandwiched between the compulsory school and the higher education sectors. FE has played a very constructive role in the economy but we have not had the recognition other sectors have had. We need to raise the profile of FE.

"We will ensure a close link with the 500 or so colleges. We will be having a close dialogue with ministers, that is crucial. Our role will be to articulate issues and present the difficulties so many are facing.

"The Prime Minister, Chancellor of Exchequer, and Secretary of State for Education and Employment are all on the record as saying they are looking to FE to play a much greater role in the economy. I think government is committed."

So what is on the agenda? Mr Turner said: "At the moment we are seeing informal mergers. Higher and further education need to come closer, with the ultimate goal being formal linkages."

He praised the recently-established Black Country consortium which spans the whole sector from cradle to grave. "It is a seamless theme and that is ultimately what we want. Some of the compartments between statutory education, FE, HE and adult education have meant we have created barriers."

The debate has moved on from questions of merging FE and HE funding councils or returning colleges to local authority control. The important step forward now is increasing the "democratic dimension" through regional assemblies to plan college and university provision. He said there must be no going back to local authorities running colleges or even having significant control. But he added: "We look forward to the strengthening of the local authorities' role in the operation of local colleges."

But first the group wants to look at the plethora of accreditation bodies within FE. Mr Turner said: "There are more than 1,000. It is a real impediment. There is a need for an urgent review of the way courses operate, and how everything fits in with the totality of provision."

So will FE at last be able to shed its Cinderella image? "David Blunkett immediately offered us a date for a meeting. We are also very encouraged to have Bryan Davies (former shadow FE spokesman) as chairman of the Further Education Funding Council. That's why I am so positive."

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