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Roll on Tom Brown's college days

A winter break is a great time for feet. At the end of a hard term some people plunge them into a mustard bath, whereas for others, famously ex-cabinet ministers and fringe Royals, they come into their own as erogenous zones.

In my case I put boots on them and head for the hills. This is not just in pursuit of personal cardiovascular targets but because there is often more sense talked about education by walkers than by any other group of people.

The best account I ever heard of the lecturers' new contracts issue came when I eavesdropped down the long, stony path into Borrowdale, Cumbria, and the only time I ever really understood the assessment regime of general national vocational qualifications was when I listened to a group of dusty rock climbers relaxing in the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub in Langdale.

This year I arranged to meet an old friend who works in the private sector and whom I expected to find in characteristically up-beat mood. In that sunlit sector a problem is when the peacocks get sore throats, a crisis when the statuary is overtaken by the ivy. No more. The talk was of redundancies, spats with governors, under-recruitment and predatory trading. The horror stories rolled on until the sky turned red over the western fells.

In some of the best-known public schools teachers have been given their cards. The sector is less heavily unionised than FE, and the schools have skills in news management, so without making waves, the process has slimmed the curriculum and some of the famously small teaching groups have gone altogether. Fewer options and larger classes sounded like familiar solutions to a funding problem.

Private schools have also had an unofficial code of practice about recruitment: no knocking the opposition, no sneaky discounting of fees, no encouragement to parents to make multiple applications. These comfortable conventions are apparently being broken in ways which we in colleges would immediately recognise.

Schools struggling to meet their numbers have begun to make special offers on fees, usually confidentially and certainly not in the brassy FE fashion of full-page advertisements, but the intention is the same. They are trying to manipulate the market. Such schools have recently had to get used to parents keeping their options open until early September, holding offers of places at several different schools. We recognise that too.

Private schools, like colleges, are now playing up their specialising. Ours may be market-leadership in welding thick plate, theirs is more likely to be year-round tennis or academy-standard music. Like us, they are out there in those parts of the world where people still have disposable incomes, hawking their wares - notably the world-wide resonance of A-levels and the promise of entrance to a British university with its own peacocks and ivy.

In the name of international education, broadening pupils' experience, promoting a way of life, they speak warmly of the velvet turf, the master classes and the 24-hour care. But the bursar's beady eye is on the balance sheet. Fill five beds every year and the school will survive.

Similarities now include boards of governors. It is not clear to whom, in private schools, they are accountable, nor what their powers are. As custodians of institutions with charitable status, private-school governors have the same overriding responsibility as do ours in colleges. Keep the place solvent. Beyond that a line or two about determining its educational character, which we have in common with them, and then, generally, silence. No wonder there have been high-profile fallings-out, and the same widely-reported slammed doors we have had in our own sector.

Listening to all this, my mind went back to the day when the Government's White Paper announced the intention to incorporate all colleges. No wholly satisfactory reason was available at the time, although cynics said it was to do with masking the effects of the poll-tax, or sticking one on the local education authorities.

Maybe the Government actually wanted the colleges to come to resemble that part of the education sector which ministers most admired, the great public schools. They have always operated in a market, have always had to see their pupils and their parents as customers, and have had to provide value for money.

They are subject to no national or regional planning process, provide whatever curriculum seems right for them and stand or fall on their quality. If that sounds familiar to us now, it was obviously meant to, and I cannot understand why I failed to see it earlier.

So, what's next? We should be entering meaningful relationships with private schools. The evidence is all around us that apparently incompatible partners can make each other very happy, and presumably their customers too. North West Water and Norweb are holding hands, and, after the predictable sense of shock, people seem to think it may be a good idea.

The academic chalk of the London University examinations board has joined up with the vocational big cheese of the Business and Technology Education Council to provide a comprehensive cross-sector validation and examination service. Synergy is possible, and the collaboration between the patrician, privileged Rolls and the gifted but rude-mechanical Royce produced a handy car company.

A prospectus for a merged public schoolFE college might list the following key features: an all-through 13-18 curriculum with distinctive academic, pre-vocational and vocational options within a single system; excellent preparation for the full spectrum of careers at 16, 17 or 18; counselling services committed to the individual; first-rate facilities; high public esteem and political support; and an attractive blend of public and private funding.

Pick the right partner and you could clean up. Eton and Slough College? Accrington and Rossall? Moves may already be afoot.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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