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Shall Cinderella go to the ball?

In the week before the inaugural conference of the Association of Colleges Ngaio Crequer reports on what principals expect of the main political parties, while, below, three of their spokesmen spell out policies for taking further education into the 21st century.

It may be a diverse sector but college principals are unanimous: they all give the same bellowing laugh when asked what they want and expect from the three main political parties.

They are not expecting much, except perhaps more of the same. The message to politicians is that further education needs to be persuaded that it counts in the wider scene.

David Gibson, principal of City College, Manchester, said: "I cannot take seriously the thought of a Liberal Democrat government. Their policies are thoughtful and professional and they are prepared to say they will put up taxes to do the job. But they won't get elected.

"I'd be surprised if there was a Tory government. At least they gave us incorporation and that has been good for the sector. But it is a nonsense to impose cuts year-on-year and expect us to maintain quality.

"If Labour gets in I hope they will ensure proper education and training for the young unemployed that will lead to real jobs." And that means guaranteed funding to meet need. "It is totally wrong for unemployed people trying to gain skills to have their benefit taken away."

Tony Henry, principal of East Birmingham College, says FE is not seen as a vote-winner by any political party. The best-attended reception organised by FE colleges at the party political conferences was the Lib Dems "and it was the worst for us because they want to take us back to local authorities," he said.

"If the Tories get in they would abolish the funding councils and get the banks and others to tender for distributing the money to the colleges. As for Labour, I do not think people like Harriet Harman and other members of the chattering classes have very much experience in FE. I cannot imagine the sons and daughters of that Cabinet going to FE colleges.

"Any incoming Labour government would have as much experience of FE as Manchester United winning," he said.

There is one common plea - funding. There is a certain annoyance that the talk is about higher education and not the bigger and wider world of FE. John Skitt, principal of Barnet College, said: "More and more adults are coming back into FE for retraining and they are struggling to make ends meet throughout these courses. The attention tends to be on HE students, and little account is taken of FE, although we are by far the majority."

The Lib Dems are unlikely to be in a position of influence, the Tories have been there for 17 years, and Labour gave encouragement in its paper on Lifelong Learning but there is still an emphasis on HE rather than FE.

Howard Phelps, chair of governors at Cirencester College, and chair of the Association of Colleges, insists there is no room left for the annual productivity gains that seem to be demanded. "We cannot let colleges go to the wall," he said. "Nor do I think a Secretary of State for Education would want to see a college go to the wall."

A trawl of principals' views as the election approaches yields five areas of discontent: colleges funding; the private finance initiative; the 16-hour rule, which cuts benefits for students who want to get back to work; financial support for the students if they are to continue to study, and a level playing field for funding post-16.

David Croll, principal of Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, goes further, demanding similar financial support for 16-year-olds going to college as 18-year-olds going to university.

Madeleine Craft, principal of Long Road Sixth-Form College, says the next government's priority should be to relax the "relentless" efficiency gains imposed on colleges. Capital spending on equipment also had to be restored.

At Warrington Collegiate Institute, Steve Broomhead, the principal, wants empathy and understanding from politicians. Labour's policies on TECs and PFI were unclear. "But all the political parties have a neutral stance on FE. The problem of Cinderella never being invited to the ball is creeping back. It is unfortunate considering the culture change we have undergone."

Ken Ruddimann, principal of Sheffield College, spoke for many of the disaffected. "I don't expect anything from any of them. I would like funding levels that are adequate and stable and an allocation system that is fair.

"I want a level playing field. There has never been one yet. I want to see us all judged by the same yardstick, all funded in the same way, all taking part in healthy competition. I have got as much chance of that as England winning the World Cup."

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