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Grassroots to have US-style policy choice

Colleges will hammer out policy at new US-style conferences under a radical shake-up of consultation within further education.

Delegates to the Association of Colleges' first annual conference in Cardiff this week pressed for the reforms after complaining about the lack of opportunity for consultation and discussion. The AOC plans to follow the example of the American community colleges and use conferences as a chance for managers and governors to debate key issues and shape policy.

Politicians in the US are given a hard time at such conferences as they are pressed hard on their policies and commitment to the sector. Many at the AOC felt they were passively receiving the wisdom, without the prepared weapons for a critical attack.

Education and employment minister James Paice provoked anger by attacking "fashionable" qualifications for which "there is basically very little labour market need." He said: "In the long run, we are helping no one if we provide infinite capacity for in-vogue, fashionable courses which lead to no job at all. "

When challenged to list such "trendy" courses he cited media studies - much criticised by educational traditionalists and media employers. But delegates said he failed to see the value of general education and insited not everything had to be tied to employment.

David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokes-

man, pledged to make colleges the centrepiece for Labour's education reforms, planned as part of the windfall tax on the public utilities.

He unveiled the latest plans in Labour's election strategy for raising education and training standards. Colleges would have a role helping to stem the disaffection among school pupils and provide the learning base for 16 to 19-year-olds under its planned new deal, he said.

"150,000 young people under the age of 18 are outside the employment process. Bringing young people back into education and training has to be matched by specific strategies for tackling disaffection and non-attendance early," he said.

Many post-16 institutions, such as Wirral Metropolitan College, have successfully carved out a role providing an alternative environment for troublesome children from age 12, referred from school.

Mr Blunkett spelled out further the party's plans to cut competition and have "sensible collaboration" among all post-16 agents under a new regional structure.

In a last-minute agenda change, two meetings for chairs of governors were added to allow corporation members to put their views to AOC leaders. Another meeting for principals and governors was aimed at setting down a firm agenda for the organisation, which was formed last August.

AOC chief executive Roger Ward pledged calls for greater consultation and more fora for policy-making would be answered. The association is aware it must move fast to fill the vacuum left now that bickering between its two parent bodies - the Colleges' Employers' Forum and the Association for Colleges - is no longer an issue.

It must also rapidly prove to ministers and the Further Education Funding Council that the much-trumpeted single voice for further education has clear ideas and demands to express.

The community colleges' model to be borrowed by the AOC sees colleges preparing throughout the year for their annual conference. Policy discussion papers are distributed and worked on beforehand and form the basis of debates.

AOC delegates meeting next year in Harrogate will take part in a similar process, involving business sessions based around policy working papers in which they will be free to speak from the floor.

The AOC is also promising to respond to calls for greater regional debate and discussion, acknowledging that colleges lack a coherent regional voice.

Following the two governors' meetings, which attracted some 180 delegates,governors are to be given a greater role in conferences. At the moment, many feel they play second fiddle to principals.

Mr Ward has promised to press FEFC chief executive David Melville to give governors more representation on the funding council's sub-committees.

In a closed meeting at the conference with chairs and principals, Mr Ward laid out two key tenets for the AOC. It would defend the freedom of independent colleges while also ensuring strong self-regulation by the sector in order to "roll back the tide of bureaucracy and audit that has swamped us".

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