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A small but powerful force

The 157 Group of 25 of the biggest and - according to Ofsted - best managed colleges in England has a hard time convincing news editors of national newspapers that is has a story to tell. But it does. And it is a story that is not lost on education ministers who are keen to raise the reputation and status of further education.

The name is a reference to Realising the Potential, the 2005 report by Sir Andrew Foster on the future role of FE colleges. Paragraph 157 calls on big colleges to work with the Department for Education and Skills to improve the reputation of the sector.

They had a bad start, though they did not realise it, when Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, eulogised about the organisation to a gathering of national journalists at the launch of the FE Bill. Such praise was guaranteed to send quivering antennae of the sceptics into overdrive.

Undaunted, the group quietly pursued its activities, with the support of the Learning and Skills Council, and might just end up being the body to convince the Treasury that FE is about more than skills for work. Indeed, if Mr Rammell is to get the Treasury to invest more in colleges, in the current climate of tight public spending, he needs all the evidence he can muster.

Last week, more than a year after its creation, the 157 Group gained official endorsement from Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, at a large reception in House of Commons.

And it will be a force to be reckoned with. It may be made up of only 25 out of 400 colleges, but the group's turnover is pound;1 billion a year, with 1 million students on their books. That's more than one-sixth of the FE sector.

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