A Newcastle Brown and Skoda man;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

29th January 1999 at 00:00
LORD, how I miss Roger Ward! Let's be honest, he was the columnist's dream: a walking, talking gossip machine, with a taste for the high life and an ego as big as Brazil. Of course, there was also the little matter of his eating FE lecturers for breakfast and spitting out the bones for tea.

It was a year ago that he went, jumping away from the Association of Colleges' top job before he was pushed. His replacement, David Gibson, takes over in a few days' time and one thing is immediately obvious - he ain't no Roger.

So what are the real differences between the two men? Let's start with the important stuff: haircuts. Roger was as smooth in this regard as in all others. If he hadn't been leading the college employers, he could have made a living modelling for those sleek mugshots that you see in hairdressers' windows.

But David? Oh, David! Other folk might have bad hair days, but FE's new boss of bosses seems to have 365 of them every year. In case you missed the photos when he first got the job, just think Beatles wig circa 1965. Woolworth's did a good one in bri-nylon, I remember.

Then there are the perks that inevitably go with the job. Roger, as everyone knows, had a Jag with personalised number-plates and oodles of oomph under the bonnet. David, apparently, can't have one of those, though we're not told what he can have. Maybe it'll be something more befitting the image of FE - say, a Skoda from the AOC pool.

But before you start feeling too sorry for our new boy, let me remind you of what was called his "salary package" - estimated to be around the pound;100,000 mark. Interesting concept that "package", isn't it? Particularly for those of us more accustomed to thinking in terms of "envelope" for our own remuneration.

That AOC office is likely to be a different place, too, once its new occupant has moved in. Roger had his famous black fridge stuffed full of bubbly and other expensive goodies. David's tastes are as yet unknown, but the style of the man seems to suggest more Newcastle Brown than Pol Roger.

One item that we know will be in there on his first day is David's precious photograph of the current Secretary of State for Education. I thank the press for this snippet: "A picture of David Blunkett sits on a shelf above the desk of David Gibson in the principal's unflash office at City College in Manchester. You can bet Gibson will take it with him when he moves to... become chief executive of the Association of Colleges."

It is hard to know what to make of this. It's true that men of a certain age (David is 58) sometimes have a penchant for decorating their offices with a leggy likeness of a Sam Fox or Melinda Messenger. But David Blunkett as a pin-up? And while you might argue that our esteemed Ed Sec's photo is to be found adorning staffrooms up and down the country, those full frontals are normally only to be found in the vicinity of the dartboard.

Certainly, Roger would have had none of it. We can be pretty sure that the only photos on the wall in Roger's office would have been of ... Roger.

But maybe there is one thing about the pair of them that is in accord: let us call it the myopia of high places. Roger was put into the post in the days of Tory rule to do a similar job to the one he'd already done on the old polytechnic sector: bash the unions and cut costs.

David's antecedents suggest a much more "feet on the ground" career: school teaching, the youth service and adult education, to name but a few. But, latterly, his viewpoint has been very much from the top, his last two jobs being as principal at two big colleges in Manchester.

This may just explain the following press perspective on the man: "Gibson ... at once blew an opening fanfare for the ... improvements in quality achieved in the five years since incorporation." Roger would certainly have said amen to that. But how many of those with their feet still on the FE ground would agree with them? After five years of cuts, cuts, cuts, I suspect most would argue just the opposite.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in a London FE college.

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