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New brand to fly the flag for FE

Report calls for radical reform of the AoC with increased powers to principals and a separate council for governors

ONE ORGANISATION under the name Colleges England should fly the flag for further education at home and abroad, say the authors of a major inquiry published this week.

The organisation should emerge from a radically reformed Association of Colleges, which the report criticises for lacking confidence, coherence or political clout and for failing to give a strong enough voice to members.

Former college principals Helen Gilchrist and George Bright were invited by the AoC board in January to carry out a no-holds-barred strategic review of the association and recommend changes.

Their stark conclusions amount to a tearing up of the 1996 constitution and a shift in the balance of power towards principals as the driving force.

Currently, governors have an equal voice in the AoC, which leaves everyone confused over "whose voice speaks for colleges", according to the report.

The authors call for a new powerful post of president to be the public and political voice of Colleges England, working alongside the chief executive.

A separate council for governors should be created within the organisation to exploit their skills, they say.

George Bright, former principal of Wiltshire College, said: "Big changes to funding arrangements have limited the ability of governors to determine what a college does. They still have a role, but the principal is accountable to politicians for the solvency of a college. Their role in the association should reflect this."

The report offers more than 30 recommendations on how the AoC should take the lead. These range from self-regulation to shaping the vision of the college sector over the next 10 years. It proposes a series of authoritative committees for members to serve on.

The AoC's success has been limited by its failure to adapt to wider changes in FE and beyond, the study says. It therefore outlines reforms to the organisation and committee structure in line with devolution, regionalisation, reduced powers for governors, and the increased fragmentation and specialisation in FE.

To improve the performance of the board, the report calls for "big guns" - such as education review authors Lord Leitch and Sir Andrew Foster, Lifelong Learning UK chair David Melville, and the Government's skills envoy Sir Digby Jones - to be invited to become independent directors. It also recommends an "associate membership" category - without voting rights - to bring new blood from organisations such as private training providers.

Helen Gilchrist, former principal of Bury College in Manchester, admits she stole the idea for the new name from Sport England, the brand name of the English Sports Council, which is a distributor of Lottery funds to sport. "Focus first on the brand, then on the country - that is what the association should be doing," she said.

The report, therefore, proposes a wider Council of UK Colleges as a forum for colleges in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to pursue common interests. This would free up the AoC to focus on its immediate priorities, something it fails to do, according to the majority of people who responded to the review.

A constant theme is that the AoC tries to do too much without using the members' expertise or focusing on priorities. The study therefore recommends the organisation sticks to four priorities: lobbying, member-driven policy development, quality research, and getting more funding and investment in colleges.

Proposals for improving industrial relations are also included.

The report will be debated at a conference in September and suggested action will be put to the AoC annual conference in November.

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