Back-room operator steps out

18th April 2003 at 01:00
The Association of Colleges' chief executive designate is turning from number-crunching to sinking his teeth into ministers. Ian Nash reports.

WHEN John Brennan pronounces on the effects of funding reforms, ministers sit up and pay attention.

The man who has done the number-crunching for the Association of Colleges and its predecessor, the Colleges Employers Forum, has a disarming way of being right.

Sixth-form colleges owe him a debt, for it was his analysis of Government spending estimates that revealed serious shortcomings compared with school sixth-forms.

More recently, he ruffled the feathers of top officials in the Learning and Skills Council when he revealed that the three-year funding calculations did not add up - jeopardising the long-fought battle to improve staff pay.

Dr Brennan, the AoC's director of further education development, has been the straight man while his boss and chief executive David Gibson has put in the rhetoric. A classic example of this successful tie-up came when Mr Gibson called for the entire three-year funding reforms to be postponed for a year (FE Focus, March 28). There was too little time to train key personnel and too little cash.

Neither Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, nor John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC, is likely to sanction such a move. However, unless they find the wherewithal to prevent disaster, the AoC will be perfectly placed to say: "We told you so." Only then, it will be Dr Brennan who will have to say it since, from September, he will be chief executive.

The big question many who know Dr Brennan are asking is: "Can the man with two degrees (and, some say, two brains) carry the leadership role and be the man with the figures?

When asked the question, he gives his characteristic wry smile (a polite way of saying: "I would not have gone for the job if I did not think I could do it.") But he replies: "We have to continue to point up the detailed implications of policies. That is not my role as leader of the organisation. My role is in part to make sure it is done and that the analysis is undertaken. But it is much more - to go out and be the public face of the organisation.

"It is very much my objective to shift people's thinking to make clear the impact of Government policies. Where that is positive, we should not hesitate to support them. But where the decisions taken inhibit the ability of colleges to meet needs we must be clear and rigorous in challenging the Government.

"I will be in a position of some strength to build on David's leadership as the organisation has grown in strength and influence over the past three to four years."

He gives the lie to the adage "three times a bridesmaid, never a bride". He will have seen off three bosses - Mr Gibson, the flamboyant Roger Ward and Ruth Gee, who Ward beat in the race for leader of the AoC when it was created from the merger of the employers' forum and the old Association for Colleges.

Mr Ward was subsequently forced to step down after his controversial business dealings were exposed by The TES.

Dr Brennan could not be more different. Variously described as "arch-technocrat", a "safe pair of hands" and "brilliant back-room operator" he rarely presents himself as the front-man.

But, if he adopts that role - with the knowledge amassed over more than 30 years of jobs including civil servant, assistant director of Wiltshire local education authority, college governor and director of the AoC and AfC - the combination could be formidable.

As those who know him would expect, he has cast a meticulous eye over the further education sector and the Government's policy agenda to define a very clear strategy as incoming chief executive.

First, Charles Clarke can expect a clear set of demands later this year spelling out what the sector expects from the comprehensive spending review next June.

Second, he is now working on a more detailed analysis of shortcomings in the present spending round and weaknesses in the LSC interpretation of the implications behind the three-year strategy in Success for All.

Third, he is considering those areas of expansion and big growth for colleges, such as 14 to19 developments and a richer vocational offering.

"It is always hard to predict new thrusts but there is a clear need to concentrate on dealing more with disengaged 16 to 19-year-olds - in their own interests and those of society at large."

Other key areas are further higher education expansion, the whole area of learning for employment and developing the skills for more productivity and social engagement, he says.

The implications are considerable. While Dr Brennan was unwilling to put a cost on growth at this stage, analysts for FE Focus say Mr Clarke must find at least pound;1.5 million in the next three-year spending round to sustain spending and growth at current rates.

Dr Brennan's fear is that the reverse will happen, given the pledges already made to universities over fees and to schools. Too detailed an understanding of history tends to make back-room operators stoical (which stops them being good leaders). But in the case of Dr Brennan, it has bred a healthy scepticism, since he knows cuts in cash are rarely matched by cuts in demands.

"We have seen disastrous effects of expansion on the cheap in the 1990s. We are still living with that legacy and cannot allow that regime to be put in place again. We are going to have to fight hard to stop that happening because it sells individuals short and it sells communities short.

"We have no estimates yet but we have got to be ready to make a case for the next phase of the funding review that takes us to 20078."

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