The smiling face of an iron lady

Francis Beckett

Francis Beckett tests the mettle of AFC chief executive Ruth Gee in the second in a series on the movers and shakers of further education .

To her friends Ruth Gee's carefree, slightly ironic smile conceals toughness and determination. To her enemies, it conceals manipulative skills learned in nine years as a Labour member of Hackney Council and six years on the Inner London Education Authority, three as deputy leader.

One leading college principal in the Association for Colleges - where she presides as chief executive - says she has "an iron fist in a velvet handbag". An adversary reckons: "When you make an observation on the AFC council which is uncomfortable for her and her friends, it is just ignored."

She commands strong loyalty from her staff at the AFC who arrive early and leave late, not minding too much because they say she values their advice and they value her integrity and commitment to education.

Her two children attend the local comprehensive in Islington no Tony Blair style flight to the London Oratory for her. Ruth, 48, was born into a working-class family and went to a village school with 28 pupils aged four to 11. With a brother and 33 first cousins she was the only one to pass the 11-plus. A working-class girl making good, she was sporty, and had been captain of hockey at her grammar school.

She did a degree at Manchester Polytechnic and a teaching diploma at Newcastle University in 1970. It was an intensely political student generation but she was not political then. She taught in the Seventies, and was a councillor from 1977 to 1986. In 1986 she gave up politics. It was the hardest decision of her life. "Normally I take decisions very quickly, but I took three months over that one. I was frustrated with politics and realised it was about the short term. In the end I would not have been a very good politician - I'm too impatient."

She was accepted as assistant director of North London Polytechnic before going to Edge Hill college of HE as chief executive. Her political years have now come back to haunt her. As the AFC and the Colleges' Employers' Forum move to merge, colleges are split over who will head the new organisation. Leading contenders are Ruth and CEF chief executive Roger Ward, though there is growing pressure for CEF chairman Keith Scribbins to stand.

The Ward camp says Ruth's political past is their trump card. They say her commitment to local schools and ILEA background smacks of old Labour, making her unfit to lead colleges in the new era.

"She focuses on out-of-date left- wing objectives," says a Ward supporter. "She has created an AFC which is simply the old power structure camouflaged. "

Another says: "Old-style Labour politics is how I think of Ruth. I don't think she is happy in the market place."

Mention this to Ruth and the smile vanishes. She says she loves the market- place and challenges critics to match her entrepreneurial record. "I've raised Pounds 370,000 for the AFC from external sources."

She proved she is a tough negotiator when she introduced new contracts at Edge Hill and chaired national negotiations for the now defunct Polytechnics and Colleges' Employers' Forum. "I'm paid partly to be nice to people. That doesn't mean I can't do the unpleasant things when they're needed," she warns.

Those who label her as old Labour forget that her diplomatic skills earned her a reputation as the acceptable face of the abrasive ILEA leader Frances Morrell.

The AFC manifesto for further education blends old ideals with easy commercialism. It talks of "inclusion not exclusion" but also of a "competitive environment". Some college principals who wanted less emphasis on equality and more on competition feel she forced it through the council. It was a belief she was willing to fight for. So is her belief she can run the merged body best.

A close ally commented: "She could do Roger Ward's job. The question is:could he do hers?"

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