Plenty of praise, but no cash

Ben Russell reports from the Further Education Development Agency's Spotlight conference in London. There was no standing ovation for Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard this week after she delivered the keynote speech at the last major gathering of the FE world before polling day.

Instead there was quiet muttering from principals as Mrs Shephard praised colleges, exhorted them to do better, expand and raise achievement - but do it without any significant increase in cash.

The Further Education Development Agency's Spotlight conference at London's Cafe Royal this week was probably the last chance the parties' front bench teams had to address the sector before the general election is called, giving a rare glimpse as Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made their pitch for the college vote.

Mrs Shephard was full of praise for colleges' achievements; their expansion, the quality of their teaching, their management and their responsiveness since they were freed from local authority control. "Colleges have shown themselves more than worthy of that independence," she said, "Students and trainees are benefiting from increased opportunity and greater choice."

But there was a rub. The Government was committed to growth, she said, but there would be no increase in state funding to pay for that growth.

But her speech, with no policy proposals, was in stark contrast to her opposition counterparts.

Labour's further and higher education spokesman Bryan Davies used the conference to outline his manifesto for the sector.

And Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster outlined his party's well-known policies for improving college funding and student support, while promising more initiatives to come.

Mr Davies has been unwilling to commit Labour to increasing college funding, although principals have been promised a slice of the party's windfall tax on the private utilities.

He instead positioned Labour as supportive of professional lecturers, announcing plans for a review of FE staffing, a return to national pay bargaining and the integration of FE lecturers into the proposed General Teaching Council.

But he appeased the quality lobby, with the announcement of proposed targets for FE lecturers' training. He said: "The standards of teaching in further education, as well as the professional standing of further education lecturers, must be lifted if the sector is to play its full part in national renewal. "

Mr Davies was not specific about what qualifications lecturers will be required to hold, but he stressed that new lecturers would have to pass a professional qualification of some kind within a set period of starting work. He expressed concern about teaching staff with very narrow qualifications, and warned about the possible effects of employing part-time lecturers - a double pitch to staff concerned about the rise of so-called technical trainers and colleges' increasing reliance on freelance staff.

Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, offered more money for colleges, in the shape of a slice of the party's much vaunted penny on income tax.

He promised a breaking down of the barriers between the vocational and academic worlds with a full credit transfer system in all post-14 education - abolishing A-levels and GNVQs with them.

A new tier of regional government should take responsibility for FE strategic planning and there would be a two per cent training levy on company payrolls.

And he lambasted the Government for the crisis over college expansion funding.

He said: " The FE sector is a time bomb waiting to explode; facing a crisis that is inevitable if colleges continue to be run by a market-drive approach and continue to be underfunded."

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