Panto plays on without Cinders

In 2005 FE was supposed to shed its Cinderella image, but it stayed schools' poor relation. Joseph Lee reports

This was the year when the world of further education found the answer to the ultimate question.

After months of anticipation, Sir Andrew Foster came down from the mountain in November with dozens of recommendations and a decision on what FE was for: providing employers with a skilled workforce.

Colleges could be relaunched as skills training centres within two years and a concentrated effort on that goal would help raise the reputation of FE, he said.

Just as importantly for keen observers of cliche, he offered colleges a new metaphor to use when asking for more money.

References to the "Cinderella sector" disappeared after Sir Andrew completed his report in November, having been replaced by the "neglected middle child".

There were no complaints from Alex Inglethorpe in January, however. The former head of football at Lewisham College earned a draw at Old Trafford in his first year as manager of Nationwide Conference minnows Exeter City.

John Harwood, the former Learning and Skills Council chief executive, was another who had nothing to grumble about. But his pound;218,700 golden handshake did prompt some howls of outrage when MPs found out about it in February.

The Treasury put them straight: the pay-off represented "value for money for the taxpayer." So that's all right, then.

Gordon Brown was not happy to foot the bill for two sets of college inspectors, however. He announced in March that the Adult Learning Inspectorate would merge with Ofsted.

But David Sherlock, the Ali chief inspector, did not go quietly. A final annual report last month said pound;2billion had been wasted on the Skills for Life programme, which was intended to improve adult literacy and numeracy.

A report earlier in the year revealed the poor performance of Army training in reading, writing and maths.

FE Focus highlighted the plight of a bomb disposal technician working in Iraq who struggled to read instructions. Mr Sherlock said it was "staggering".

Just as the budget was announced, the cash crises emerged. The first was in March, where training providers and the LSC were taken by surprise when apprentices failed to drop out in sufficient numbers.

The dispute over who should pay for the unexpectedly conscientious students rumbles on and could head to the courts next year.

One month later, and the first signs of financial trouble in adult education were apparent. It eventually emerged that 300,000 adult learning places were at risk from budget cuts.

The Government said it had to concentrate on its priorities of basic skills, level 2 GCSE-equivalent qualifications for adults and education for 16 to 19-year-olds. In October, it would also be revealed that course fees would have to rise by 50 per cent.

More acute financial problems were to emerge in Leicester in June. A review aimed at saving pound;500,000 had instead prompted a pound;3.5million overspend.

Steven Andrews, director of education, resigned with a pound;129,000 pay off. The full report into the fiasco will not be published.

In May, Brixton prisoners were barred from taking exams after they were suspected of cheating. Four of them managed to pass papers intended to last about an hour in just 10 minutes.

Reed Learning, which runs education at the prison, blamed a computer glitch and said the prisoners had not been dishonest.

The boys in blue arrested Kaveh Gharachorlou, human resources director of Croydon College, in March, during an investigation into poison pen letters allegedly sent to colleagues.

Former lecturer Stuart Spacey appeared in court, charged with siphoning off about pound;1 million from a training firm linked to Barnsley College. He is due to appear again early next year.

Officers were also seen in large numbers at Havering College. But they were not investigating crime: they were the first PCs to complete part of their training in an FE college.

Two college lecturers were the victims of shocking violent attacks in 2005.

In April, Abigail Witchalls, a basic skills lecturer at East Surrey College, was left paralysed after she was stabbed in the neck.

After gradually recovering some feeling and movement in her limbs, she returned home last month and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Richard Cazaly, the man believed to be her attacker, committed suicide.

In August, Lawrence Hart, a lecturer at a secluded adult education college in Gloucestershire, died after a confrontation with intruders.

Jan Hart, his brother and cartoonist for FE Focus, said he was a gentle man who was passionate about learning.

The last British-owned mass-market car manufacturer, Rover, finally went under in April after negotiations with Chinese buyers failed to produce a lifeline. College tutors worked with JobCentre staff to see 1,000 workers a day in the week following the Longbridge factory closure. More than 80 apprentices were moved to Dudley College and Matthew Boulton College.

The timing for the Government could not have been worse, with an election due in early May.

John Towers, who was Rover's chairman as it went under, is a former head of West Midlands Learning and Skills Council.

Labour held on in the general election, and the reshuffle saw Ivan Lewis and Kim Howells make way for Phil Hope and Bill Rammell , the latter taking on his "ideal job" of minister for further and higher education despite coming within 97 votes of losing his seat.

He came under more pressure straight away, with the revelation this summer that the funding gap between schools and colleges was 13 per cent, even larger than previously thought.

At the same time, FE got organised, with the formation of the Concord group, a lobby group of ten organisations working in post-16 education.

Two days in July dominated the news. July 6 was a celebration, as London was a surprise winner of the 2012 Olympics bid.

A bid for the Skills Olympics in 2011 followed, while colleges in east London looked forward to a bonanza of cash and students, particularly in construction, hospitality and tourism.

But July 7 was a day of horror, when four suicide bombers detonated their explosives on three Tube trains and a bus. FE Focus told how autistic student James Mathiason used the independent living skills he had learned from the Interact Centre to cope when the bomb went off in his carriage at Edgware Road station.

But a critical, and hotly disputed Ofsted report, meant its funding was stopped in August and the centre has now closed.

August also saw London's mayor Ken Livingstone launch his bid to control the funding of FE.

There was bad news for the Learning and Skills Council the following month, when news of 1,300 job losses emerged.

But colleges got a rare public acknowledgement of their successes in September from the LSC, which had undertaken the largest survey of student satisfaction.

It found that 89 per cent were happy with their course and that colleges were transforming attitudes to learning among disaffected students.

November was a month of unrest. Lecturers at Newcastle college, rebelling against new contracts, were defeated after they faced losing their jobs.

But, all over the country, Natfhe members took to the picket lines in their pay dispute, marching outside the venue of the Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham while Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, spoke inside.

The AoC took its campaign for better funding to Downing Street with a petition of 62,000 names of students and former students whose lives have been changed by FE.

The Natfhe general secretary, Paul Mackney, was able to enjoy a personal triumph in December as members voted to approve the merger with the Association of University Teachers, something he had been advocating since his election in 1997.

Unison said discontent about the pay gap between schools and colleges was also growing among support staff, as caretakers at Huddersfield Technical College settled in for an indefinite strike.

Shop steward Dave Ellis promised to eat his turkey on the college steps on December 25 as a sign of his determination.

Happy Christmas!

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