Now we have a voice - and it's FE's turn

The Association of Colleges' conference is to get tips on lobbying from the politicians themselves, reports Ian Nash. Below Huw Richards assesses key players in the group which represents FE in Parliament

DENNIS TURNER is deeply-rooted in the area he represents - one of those MPs in whom the West Midlands appears to specialise.

He lives less than 200 yards from where he was born in Bilston, the heart of the Wolverhampton South East constituency he has represented for Labour since 1987. He has vivid memories of the 1979 closure of the local steelworks: "It was very traumatic. The steelworks was the centre of the community and its security - the place where youngsters knew there would be a job."

That experience reinforced his belief in further education: "Bilston college was our beacon of hope. There were 2,300 workers out of work who had to be reskilled and retrained. Courses there sent people in directions they'd never dreamed of. It proved the vital importance of further education."

Mr Turner went to the college as a school-leaver in the late 1950s - "I studied accountancy, not that I've ever used it professionally, but I know my way round a balance sheet"- and became a governor in 1967 after becoming a Wolverhampton borough councillor a year earlier.

Later he spent eight years as chair of Wolverhampton's Further Education committee - a powerful role when polytechnics were still locally authority-run.

When he entered Parliament and found there was no further education group it was a natural step to set one up with like-minded colleagues. Alun Michael, now Secretary of State for Wales, was another leading member. It was not the most propitious time for a further education lobby: "We were a very small group and the Government was never very receptive. Tim Boswell worked very hard to raise further education issues while he was the minister, but he didn't get much response from his senior colleagues."

Mr Turner looked with envy at the clout wielded by other sectors: "Higher education has always had a very vocal lobby, while further education has quietly gone away and delivered." As a member of the education and science select committee in the early 1990s he was a lone voice in his preoccupation with training issues.

But the FE group's fortunes were given new life by the 1997 election: "We had a new generation of members who were much more aware of further education, often because they had been involved in defending their local colleges. We have 110 members. I believe we can now act as an effective voice."

As chair of the FE group his mood matches this upturn: "This is further education's turn. It has delivered for years under immensely difficult circumstances. The Government is committed to the lifelong learning agenda, and knows that it needs the colleges to implement it.

Mr Turner, who is still vice-chair of governors at Bilston college, also expects to find the Government receptive to his policy priorities - and not just in the area of finance: "I was particularly interested in the Lane Report's discussion of maintenance grants for further education students. This has been a concern of mine for a long time. I know that David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, is prepared to listen on this issue, and the creation of a pilot scheme is a real possibility."

Briefing meetings with the various FE interest groups such as the AOC, unions, including Unison, and students have been among the early activities of the revitalised group. While the AOC's members have inevitably been the implementers of Government casualisation policies, operators in the market and often happier with governing bodies shorn of their old local authority influences, Mr Turner has little doubt that it will be receptive to his agenda: "Casualisation wasn't something that colleges particularly wanted, but it was effectively forced upon them."

"The principals know that the sector as a whole loses out when it is divided in this way, and that they will benefit from a better-treated, better-motivated workforce. They recognise the benefits a more democratic approach to governance will bring to colleges, and the damage that market policies have done to their institution."

He is confident that the AOC can recuperate effectively from its Roger Ward hangover: "I don't want to talk too much about that. It was a very unproductive period for the colleges, but I believe lessons have been learnt from it - if not there is the danger of it all happening all over again.

"The AOC has suffered as a body from the preoccupation of colleges with their own problems in the past few years, but I believe it can now become an even more effective body for the sector. It is very important that the AOC should play a positive role. The sector won't succeed without it."

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