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Gloves off for the next round

Battles lie ahead in the tertiary sector, reports Clare Dean from the Society of Education Officers' conference. There was unfinished business on the agenda - and the gloves were off. If co-operation and collaboration was being talked about, it was certainly not that apparent in papers circulating around the Crown Hotel in Harrogate.

The following comments appeared in draft principles for the administration of tertiary education being discussed by the Society of Education Officers.

* "Students do not exist to create profit for colleges."

* "The conduct of the colleges should be determined by the needs of the students rather than by the interests of the institutions in which they are taught."

* "Colleges are not business enterprises which need confidential plans and secret meetings."

It is now three years since the colleges were removed from local authority control. And some education directors are still licking their wounds.

The "unfinished business" line came from Heather DuQuesnay, first woman president of the SEO and education director with Hertfordshire. She voiced concern about the accountability of FE to its local community, its responsiveness to local needs, to individuals as well as business and its place in a coherent pattern of post-16 and adult education. While it is clear that turning the clock back to the days of local authority control of colleges is impossible, it is obvious LEAs want a share in running the system.

Philip Hunter, Staffordshire's chief education officer, and Margret Maden, professor of education at Keele University, warned in the TES last week that change was needed to prevent further bruising battles with schools. They argued that changes had to be made to funding, planning and governance.

They said councils, as well as regional committees, comprising local authorities, training and enterprise councils and college nominees and TEC had to be guaranteed a strong influence on planning.

Mr Hunter told the SEO: "Many colleges regard themselves as businesses. There has been far too much secrecy with very little enthusiasm to discuss their plans with the public they serve.

"Colleges are funded through an aggressive mechanism which is directed towards growth and there is a worry about quality when such an aggressive system is in place. There is far too much evidence of local competition which has sometimes degenerated into local wars."

Draft principles for running tertiary education, which he presented to the conference, called for a system that was open and accountable and for all parts of public education to be treated equally and fairly.

They also said that colleges should be an integral part of the education system and, like all other educational institutions, should be directing their energies towards high quality education for their students. (The implication presumably being that they are not?) It was spelled out a little clearer in the accompanying commentary: "Many colleges regard themselves as businesses, more interested in winning resources for themselves than in serving their students or communities."

Jenny Shackleton, principal of the Wirral Metropolitan College, defended her sector well. She told the conference if LEAs wanted to be stupid, they could lock horns over FE.

"But basically the pressures are very similar, we have similar constituencies . . . and on funding - we are both being squeezed. Recognise that colleges are not free. They like to play at being free but we are actually under constraints in just the same way local authorities are."

She said that in the future there would need to be regional delivery of national awards and for the awarding bodies to merge.

She also disclosed her goals for the year 2005. Every school, college and education institution to be electronically linked; for pre- and post-16 education to be delivered in a connected and collaborative way; for every young person's entitlement to be spelt out and fulfilled; for them to be given a "friend" or guide; for rational and equitable funding and for the whole network to be regarded as a learning organisation.

On that last point the SEO may agree. Its discussions last week will now help formulate policy.

As one delegate observed: "Try substituting the word school for college and then see how you feel about them."

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