BYONE of those little ironies that life loves to throw up, JacquiHenderson's first half-year as chief executive of the Training and Enterprise Council national council is being dominated by the need to fend off a major challenge from the further education sector.
Publication of the Government's four-year plan for TECs has been put back to February. Insiders say this owes much to the strong case mounted by colleges and others for a bigger slice of the TECs' pound;1.4 billion budget.
Although formal consultation ended in September, lifelong learning minister George Mudie is still soliciting views from colleges, the unions and the training industry. The irony is that Henderson is walking, talking, persuasive proof of the effectiveness of FE in helping late developers to achieve. At the age of 30, with two young children, she signed on at her local FE college in Ashington, Northumberland, to obtain the A-levels that would take her on to university in Newcastle.
She worked at all levels in education for the next 18 years, from reception classes in primary schools to secondary teaching and curriculum development to further education. She was an FE inspector and adviser when TECs were established in 1990.
Seeking to use her skills and knowledge in a wider role, she joined the local TEC in Northumberland soon after it opened, as head of education.
Prospering in one of the most entrepreneurial TECs in the land, she became managing director within five years.
Now, at an age when many women would be seeking to adjust to the pace of country life, she has come to London. Or to that part of town visible from the 10th floor of TEC Towers, by Lambeth Bridge.
As a late-developing disciple of lifelong learning, she is learning a lot about weaving her magic on both Education Secretary David Blunkett and on George Mudie - who is slowly overcoming a reported aversion to TECs. But perhaps not fast enough.
The Government's forthcoming strategic guidance is crucial for Jacqui Henderson, as it will determine the shape, size and responsibilities of TECs - and their levels of funding. As The TES has reported, they are being challenged for both by the FE sector, with the Association of Colleges fighting forcibly.
National training organisations are also after a decent dollop of dosh.
Chambers of commerce want to merge with TECs to form super-chambers on the continental model. And the Confederation of British Industry has been scathing about inconsistency of performance among the 78 local TECs.
With chambers scoring strongly on the enterprise front in the recent competitiveness White Paper, there is talk of a new principle of "FFH" - or Funding Follows Humphries, after Chris Humphries, Henderson's charismatic predecessor, now chief executive of the British Chambers of Commerce.
However, Henderson remains not just tolerant and diplomatic but friendly towards the FE sector as a whole.
"They have said what they believe is important and one has to acknowledge that these are their views at this time", she says. "This is their perspective, and other people have said different things." However, advisers suggest colleges might yet see the tougher side of Jacqui Henderson.
Some of the things she is discovering at TEC Towers are positive - especially the quality of work undertaken by policy directors Mary Lord and Lindsey Simpson. And, she says, the high regard in which they are held outside.
"That is something I wasn't fully aware of before, and I am impressed by just how much the national council is involved at the centre of activities and just how high is its influence", she says. She wants to bring the same professionalism to communications.
But if the national council is to expand, it has to convince its TEC paymasters to increase its funding. It has been frozen for two years at around pound;1 million, as TECs plough more into their regional bodies for the advent of Regional Development Agencies. London now has a bigger budget, and other regions are fast approaching.
And too many local TEC leaders, like Henderson until recently, are unaware of what their national body does and remain concerned about its low profile nationally.
On the main issues, she has mastered her brief and the message comes across with clarity and conviction. But the promise lingers of greater intellectual vigour; as soon as she has thought through the issues, expect significant shifts.
Jacqui Henderson combines the assurance and authority of a successful woman in her mid-fifties, while effecting something of the beguiling innocence of a simple northerner adrift in the big city.
Opportunities to achieve as the TECs' second national chief executive will be shaped by the scope offered in the strategic guidance. But those who believe she is there just to keep the seat warm until Chris Humphries returns to head a merged body have misjudged a very capable and original woman.