Principals can boost the profile of vital college issues if they communicate well with MPs and the local and regional media, writes Francis Beckett.
When Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell tabled a parliamentary question to the Prime Minister last December about the funding of Sutton Coldfield College, the issues he referred to were resolved in weeks.
Not surprisingly, a lot of college principals sat up and took notice.
Some principals are old hands at parliamentary lobbying, but about half have only been appointed in the past three years, so there are many novices.
For the newcomers, the Association of Colleges has produced a guide for principals on how to work with the local MP and the regional and local media. On May 19, the AoC organised a national parliamentary day for colleges at the House of Commons. Together with the trade unions and the National Union of Students, more than 200 individuals from 128 colleges attended in a bid to raise the issue of inadequate funding in further education with their MPs.
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, is an experienced lobbyist. She is a former civil servant who is acting as an FE adviser to the education select committee. She is a firm advocate of colleges working closely with politicians.
She said: "The mistake some principals make is to think they can only be non-political by not involving themselves in politics. But you can work side by side with politicians and still be utterly professional."
College principals who have taken to lobbying often find that they are knocking on an open door. Many MPs, even the ones who know a good deal about schools, are quite ignorant about the FE sector, but they are willing to learn what effect government policies and proposals are having on the ground.
John Brennan, the AOC's chief executive, says: "National Parliamentary Day is about giving college principals, governors, unions and students the opportunity to talk to their MPs about the reality of the situation in their colleges. Schools and universities have been very vocal on behalf of their causes. In the past, colleges have tended to be silent but they have found their voice and are becoming an effective force at getting over the case for the fair funding of post-school learning."
Colleges have a long shopping list for their MPs. For a start there is the additional pound;1.9 billion which the AoC says colleges will need between 2006 and 2008 in order to meet government targets. And there is the 10 per cent funding gap between school sixth-forms and FE colleges.
There is the pay gap between lecturers and school teachers. And then there is the pound;400 million allocated to college buildings, compared with the pound;5bn being spent on school sites.
Working with MPs can benefit both sides. It raises the profile of the college within its catchment area and the MP's profile in the eyes of the local electorate. Certainly, MPs are alive to local photo opportunities.
Cricklade College in Hampshire has had a chequered history of financial management since incorporation in 1993, when FE colleges left local authority control and became self-governing.
Under a new principal, Dr Tom Johnson, the college has improved its reputation locally with the active support of the Conservative MP Sir George Young.
Cricklade's relationship with Sir George also has spin-off benefits for other Hampshire colleges.
The 22 college principals in Hampshire hold regular meetings to which they invite key speakers. These have included Alan Johnson, the minister for Further and Higher Education as well as Mike Tomlinson, the man charged with reforming the 14-19 examinations system.
Through this forum, the principals have been able to use Sir George as a conduit to express their views to Tim Boswell, the former shadow spokesman for post-16 education.
Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham and Deptford, organised a postal survey of Lewisham college's students about the higher education Bill and the issue of university fees. Other MPs are active in writing to ministers, tabling parliamentary questions, requesting adjournment debates or signing early-day motions.
Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, tabled an adjournment debate on May 18 on FE funding. Dennis Turner, MP for Wolverhampton South East and co-chair of the all party parliamentary group for Further Education and lifelong learning, tabled an early-day motion supporting the work done in FE colleges. The motion has attracted more than 150 signatures.
But in spite of the many successes, some college principals are still reluctant "to embrace the political discourse", says Ruth Silver. She believes that they are concerned about putting off potential students with tales of funding woes and alienating the Learning and Skills Council, from which their funding comes.
Certainly, the matter must be handled carefully. David Cragg, regional director of the West Midlands LSC, and Graham Jones, principal of Sutton Coldfield college, are quick to point out that the parliamentary question to the Prime Minister in December had no bearing on the resolution of the funding issues raised by Andrew Mitchell MP.
Either way, Mr Cragg says college principals are not shrinking violets. "It is perfectly legitimate for colleges, as independent corporations, to lobby MPs on key issues of local concern, even if it brings them into conflict with the regional LSC," he says.
Ms Silver goes further. "The LSC are the biggest friends we have - if we work with them properly. They are the voice of the provision in the area."
For others, the AoC is the national body which fires the bullets on their behalf.
In a bid to bring colleges and MPs closer together, the AoC will launch a work experience scheme for principals and MPs that will involve job shadowing. And for the "political babes in arms" there is the AoC brief and guide to working with your local MP and the local and regional media.
Today, knowing how to work the political system is an important weapon in a principal's armoury. Indeed, perhaps it is time to include them in the leadership and management courses of which the Government is so fond.
DOWN A TWO-WAY STREET
What you can do?
* Write to or visit the MP at the local constituency office or at the House of Commons. Keep your message simple and concise with specific examples of how the college is affected. Be clear about what you are asking the MP to do.
What the MP can do?
* Write to or arrange to meet the relevant minister
* Table or sign an early-day motion. Such a motion is not debated but provides an indication of the strength of support for an issue.
* Table, or speak in, an adjournment debate. There is an adjournment debate for 30 minutes at the end of each day to which the minister must respond.
* Speak in a government debate on the issue
* Table an amendment to a bill
* Propose a private member's bill or a 10-minute rule bill. These are unlikely to become law, but they help to raise the profile of a particular issue.