5th December 2003 at 00:00
Why did three ministers fail to give credit where due when they addressed the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Birmingham last month?

Unable to bring new cash promises - given the current early stage of the Government spending review - they left many wondering why the ministers were there at all. Indeed, the ever-ebullient adult skills minister Ivan Lewis, in a party-turn at the conference dinner, even hinted at bad news to come in his speech next day. The threat failed to materialise.

But what Lewis, new boy Alan Johnson and Treasury minister John Healy all knew was that a Learning and Skills Council survey showed a stunning 94 per cent of students and work-based learners were satisfied with their education. So, a little praise would have been a perfectly timed fillip for colleges. After all, Charles Clarke warned last year's conference of plans for management hit-squads to descend on failing colleges - taking the zest out of the announcement of a record three-year deal for the sector.

Equally surprising is the failure of the LSC's new chief officer Mark Haysom to exploit the good news in his inaugural speech at the conference.

The LSC's excuse that it would have been swamped by the rest of the agenda is limp, adding insult to injury.

One has sadly to conclude that ministers do not like good news or, more likely, are embarrassed by it. Colleges are rightly expecting some reward for their successes, but there is every indication that the next spending settlement will be pretty lousy.

If the LSC consumer survey had been bad news, ministers and the council would have been quick to lambast colleges. Failure to give praise has served to fuel cynicism and a belief that ministers are preparing for bad news on funding.

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