PETER Pendle believes he brings a vital lesson from higher education to the post-16 sector. It is the need to speak with a single voice on the issues which shape its future.
That voice needs to articulate the common interests of school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges. Pendle says that, as director of Universities UK, he has benefited from presenting a united front while also preserving the different character and ethos of old and new universities.
Finding a way for FE to benefit from this approach will be one of his first tasks when he becomes general secretary of the Association for College Management, taking over from John Mowbray, the first person to hold the post full-time.
A more collaborative approach is particularly important at a time when the sector appears to have veered away from its mission to widen participation.
"The Government's laudable targets for widening participation are not being achieved. If anything, the process has been reversed. The biggest lesson I can bring from higher education is that the different sectors of post-16 need a single voice.
"Universities UK provided a very powerful lobby with a very significant impact.
"We need to have all the stake-holders in FE speaking with one voice. If that means the FE sector and the school sixth form and the voluntary sector lobbying together, then that is what we should do."
He admits it is too early to say how this united voice will be achieved, let alone what message the sector wants to get across. Pendle, 42, won't be formally in post until June. "By then," he said, "we could have a new Secretary of State."
Apart from giving post-16 the same political clout as the universities, his other challenge is closer to home. The ACM claims a growing membership but, with 4,200 college managers signed up, it is a small player compared with lecturers' union NATFHE, which has 42,000 of its 66,000 members in the FE colleges.
NATFHE's approach to the patchy introduction of the 3.3 per cent pay rise for lecturers, and its willingess to ballot for industrial action in colleges which haven't paid up, have given it a high profile as a union which gets results. ACM members, often involved in the practicalities of making college finances work, are less inclined to strike.
"It is not just a question of industrial action. We recognise pay and conditions are serious issues and we have to encourage the sector to look at its ability to deliver when there are issues around recruitment and retention of staff. We have to look at how we reward people who we want to continue playing a role in the future of colleges."
Pendle considers himself a model lifelong learner. Like Stephen Grix, the chief inspector for post-16 inspection at the Office for Standards in Education, who will address the ACM's annual conference in Birmingham on March 25 and 26, he achieved his qualifications through part-time study.
Pendle did a BTEC higher in public administration, a diploma in industrial relations policy and trades union studies and an MBA at the Open University.
Born in West Ham, London, he left school in Southend, Essex, at 17 to join British Rail as an administrative worker. He then worked for Sealink, the ferry company which was part-owned by BR until it was privatised.
He spent a year running a centre for unemployed people in Ilford, Essex, funded by the Greater London Council. He stayed in the job until the GLC was abolished.
From there he went to Waltham Forest Council and then Brent Council in London as a policy adviser, a post which included working with the education committee.
In 1990, he became vice-principal of Greenhill College in Harrow. He joined Universities UK in 1996.
"I think this opportunity to return to FE was too good to miss. With my background and my own educational experience, you could say FE was my first love."
The ACM conference is sponsored by The TES. Other speakers will include Susan Pember, director of the Government's adult basic skills strategy unit and Geoff Terry, chief executive of the Further Education National Training Organisation.
For full details of the conference, contact Sara McCaffrey at the ACM(Tel: 0116 275 5076)