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Colleges have a bad year

Ian Nash looks back on 1996

Helen Chandler came to epitomise the further education sector in 1996 - a woman who is "very ill and very upset".

Pity the Stoke on Trent College deputy and her principal Neil Preston. On sick leave and allegedly running a pub, they were hounded by the press as news unfolded that the college faced Pounds 8m debts due to lack of growth.

Then think of the subsequent plight of 200 staff facing redundancy as a result and the pity dissolves. Rooftop protests were the stuff of prisons last year; they were the stuff of FE this year.

Managers with a "there but for the grace of God" view confided that there was a little "Stoke" in most colleges, if not as spectacular. Lecturers paid the price as redundancies exceeded the 1995 record of 1,500.

Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard in the spring promised more "efficiency savings" (cuts in everyone else's diction). And if anyone had doubts, they were dispelled by Chancellor Kenneth Clark's autumn Budget - Pounds 40m for FE (Pounds 23m in anyone else's maths).

1997 proved to be the big merger year. Not of colleges as expected, but of three mega-organisations. The Association of Colleges was born this summer from the merger of two. Sixth-form colleges joined them this month.

Another redundancy as Ruth Gee, Association for Colleges chief executive, lost out to Colleges' Employers' Forum boss Roger Ward in the leadership race. The bete noir of sacked lecturers pledged unity, strength and "no more Mr Nasty Guy." Members of NATFHE are still holding their collective breath.

The year was marked by significant departures. Sir William Stubbs handed over the chief executive reins of the Further Education Funding Council to Professor David Melville, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University. His parting remark was to predict the formation of rescue squads of super-principals to bail out failing colleges.

Not only was he proved right, but Labour leader Tony Blair filched the model for failing schools. In fact, close scrutiny of college initiatives from drugs education to managements taking control of their own inspection regimes show them as pathfinders where schools will follow.

Committees of the great and the good from Professors Higginson on information technology to Tomlinson on special needs drafted grand and expensive plans for the sector. Whether they come to fruition will depend on Mr Ward's pledge to get tough with politicians in 1997 - election year. Watch this space.

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