Plenty of smoke but not much fire

News of John Brennan's planned departure from the Association of Colleges is premature, he tells me.

The FErret hotline was buzzing after the summer break with callers asking whether we had heard that the chief executive was planning to stand down.

Did we know when he was going and why?

Every autumn, we expect the tedious annual round of "strictly-off-the-record" claims from disgruntled colleges that they are quitting the association - a regular sport in the run-up to the AoC annual conference. This always comes from Rumour Mill, the capital city of Gossip Land. But the Brennan issue came from much higher sources.

Was it to do with his recent run-in with Government? Couldn't he stand the political heat? Was there really an exodus of member colleges? Was there a cash crisis?

Not a bit of it, the man himself told FErret. He had never considered quitting. "This is amazing," he said. "I don't know who's been putting it about, what their motivation is, or why they are saying it. I am amused at the suggestion."

So, rather than return the countless phone calls, FErret is scotching the rumour and pondering over how it might have arisen.

First, Bill Rammell, further and higher education minister, makes no secret of his annoyance with the AoC. Earlier this year, he invited a member of the 157 Group of colleges, rather than the AoC, to his ministerial team for learning and skills. The group is a self-selecting FE "Russell Group" of 25 largest colleges with top inspection grades for leadership and management.

Their name alludes to paragraph 157 of the Foster report, about FE's reputation.

When the AoC protested, Rammell dismissed the association as "unconstructive", pointing the finger at Brennan. Rammell sees the 157 Group was far more user-friendly. That seems a tad unfair. The group hardly represents the whole sector - which the AoC does. And what should Brennan do to avoid annoying ministers? Brown-nose?

Second, there was the suggestion of an exodus and cash-flow problems. But, as we go to press, evidence suggests the AoC coffers are still brimming with 97 per cent of colleges still in membership.

A third and more likely cause of discontent is the association's decision in July to axe the subsidiary company WFD (for workforce development). With other last-minute staff cuts, not everyone in the AoC was a happy bunny. In fact, one insider at the time described the atmosphere in the London office as "poisonous".

So, in the end, maybe it did come from Rumour Mill at the height of a particularly marked silly season.

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