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Tensed for conditional, not perfect, future

The war is over. Charles Clarke, Education Secretary and new to the battleground, declared it to be so at the annual Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham. In fact it was obvious even before he said it. We had gone along to the conference expecting to see the heavyweight contest of the year, Dave "Gorilla" Gibson, AoC champion, versus "Gentleman" Charles Clarke. The purse was reputed to be about pound;1.2 billion.

The year before, the Gorilla had seen off self-confessed lightweight Estelle Morris, who never really recovered from the mauling. This time, we thought we had a fairer contest but we were disappointed. David, sensing his opponent's mood, did a bit of clever shadow boxing but never tried to land a serious punch. "Gentleman" Charles, aware he was dealing with a foe he scarcely knew, stuck to some well-practiced routines, showed his opponent some respect, indulged in a few verbals and handed over the purse without much of a fight, stating that the war was over. The internet version of his speech said "the internecine war is over", but Charles had eyed up his audience and dropped the long word.

Or so I thought. I had assumed "the war" in question was the one between colleges that the Tories had started in 1993, and thus "internecine". It became clear, however, that the conflict was the one between all participants in the FE ring. As we know, the promoter, the seconds, the referee and the fighters have been knocking lumps out of each other for years. Colleges are not reeling from clobbering each other, but from the pummelling they have had from the referee and sponsors. Charles introduced a new word to define the relationship between colleges and their masters in future: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. This was the Aretha Franklin conference. Respect and trust were in, gargantuan audit regimes and endless inspection reviews were out. Everything was going to change, the nasty funding methodology would be tamed, data collections would be streamlined, there would be money for all, we could close the soup kitchens and pay our staff again. The Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council would stop assuming that colleges were run by unreliable degenerates with a grudge against society and start to treat us as respected professionals doing a decent job in difficult circumstances. The past was history; the future perfect and my writing career potentially over.

And the bruiser who had brought this about was not even in the ring. He and his report were relegated to a sideshow, but his menacing, bureaucracy-busting bulk pervaded the whole arena. George "Todd" Sweeney had landed a killer punch that, paradoxically, had brought everyone to their senses. He was taking on all-comers in a fringe event that proved so popular with the punters that it had to be staged twice, threatening recruitment and retention figures at all other sessions.

So, have we finally convinced those in power that we are as "mature" as higher education and as low risk as schools? Well almost, but not quite. Too many of us are still being floored by an Office for Standards in Education uppercut. These ring-rusty judges will mark your card for losing just one round of a 15-round contest. So the future will not be bright for every college; trust, respect and the cash that goes with it will be doled out in relation to performance. Colleges will be seen as excellent, good, satisfactory or poor and their core funding will increase by a greater percentage as they rise up the ladder. The reverse, sadly, also applies. These judgments and the allocation of cash that accompanies them will be done in a non-bureaucratic way, of course, befitting the new atmosphere of mutual respect and light-touch monitoring. When ministers speak, it is important to listen to the tenses they use. In this case the past was historic but the future was conditional rather than perfect, which may provide me with enough copy for a few years yet.

But, for now, let's put on the Aretha Franklin record and pump up the volume. R.E.S.P.E.C.T is a great song to dance to and a relationship worth aiming for. I, for one, am fed up with body blows, referees who cannot maintain a fair fight and sponsors who just want to fill the hall. Let's by all means have a new game; just so long as it is not snakes and ladders.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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