All over now, maybe blue...

6th May 2005 at 01:00
So how was it for you? Did you vote for the same lot as always or did you scrutinise manifestos and vote accordingly? Were you guided by conscience, altruism, or naked self-interest? Or did you just go to the pub and not bother with any of it? Well, it may be all over for you, but I'm still in the thick of it.

As I write, there is still a week to polling day. Which means all the boring overkill of the last week of the election campaign is still ahead of me. Or, of course, you'll know by now if something dramatic and exciting happened and I've still got it all to come.

Something really dramatic such as the first mention from anyone involved in the election of the existence of FE and its vital contribution to the brave new world the politicos have been laying out before us. It hasn't happened in the first three weeks, so I guess they must be saving it all up for next week.

My guess is that they'll make next Tuesday "FE Tuesday", in which each party sets out how it is going to get right behind the major engine of skills regeneration in the country, the FE sector. If it happens, and you'll know by now if it did, the Lib Dems will wheel out Phil Willis, as they always do, because he was once a school headteacher and not only can he get the letters FE in the right order, he often seems to know what they stand for.

The Lib Dems, he will have boasted, will abolish bureaucracy, fund the gap between schools and colleges, give FE lecturers pay parity with teachers, make all students nice and put toasted teacakes in every staffroom. He will have thundered at the incompetence of both main parties and been scandalised by their neglect of FE, safe in the knowledge that his competence and his best attentions will never be tested in action.

The Tories will have promised to increase spending on the FE front line by eliminating waste. This seems to mean abolishing the LSC, which you may recall was set to cost pound;50m less than its predecessors and ended up costing almost pound;200m more. They will re-establish an FE Funding Council. The last trump will sound and all those old FEFC officers sacked by the LSC will rise from their rocking chairs in front of the fire and walk in their slippers to Coventry, where they will have things running properly again in five minutes. Cynics see this promise alone as enough to put polling station before pub on Thursday.

Beyond that promise, though, the Tories have a problem, since they are not entirely sure what an FE college does. They have an uneasy feeling that it might be about helping those who should know their place to better themselves and challenge the establishment; so they want to help, but aren't sure they can, ideologically.

They'd like us to keep trouble off the streets and in our classrooms but not change the status quo too much. So, short of policies of their own, they pinch Labour's. Labour has neglected FE colleges, they say, but nowhere near enough. Vote for us and we will usher in a new golden era of benign neglect, which will leave the sector free, unregulated and broke.

Like the last time we were in.

The Labour spokesman would have been interesting if you had been able to hear him over the hum of the spinning machine in the background. He will have told you, correctly, that FE is funded at record levels, but not that the money was siphoned off in higher NI and pension payments, TPI and pay increases dreamt up on another planet.

The Foster review of FE will have been trumpeted as the way to modernise FE and make it the driving force of economic progress the nation needs. That is, unless it recommends things the Government doesn't like or didn't intend it to, in which case Foster can join Tomlinson in looking to a peerage but no mention in the history books of FE. As for foreign policy you'll have learned that New Labour is busy creating New Iraq out of the rubble of the old one. They created the rubble, too, of course. Now, they'd like us to get out there and help build a New Iraqi skills sector, just as soon as they've rounded up the students and confiscated their weapons.

As for the smaller parties, UKIP will abolish foreign language teaching and Veritas will demand NVQs in artificial tanning. The Monster Raving Loony party will scrap Ofsted, get auditors to work for a capped fee in a limited time, simplify funding, abolish every hanger-on institution which can't prove value-added, and stop schools calling themselves colleges. They've got my vote but since they don't have a candidate where I live, I'll have spent last night down the pub. As for the winner, what a pity the creepy one with the funny accent and mad eyes got in.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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