Ian Nash reports on controversial AOC proposals to give local authorities back some control over colleges
Local authorities are set to regain some control over colleges at the invitation of the leading employers' group, the Association of Colleges.
But the moves - taken without consulting the FE sector - have led to a storm of protests, with colleges threatening to resign from the AOC if the board fails to withdraw any guarantees.
The pledge by the AOC board to the Local Government Association has caused a deep rift among members. It was made despite a promise to consult, as revealed in correspondence sent to The TES this week.
An angry exchange of letters between Eddie McIntyre, principal of Birmingham College of Food, and Roger Ward, chief executive of the AOC followed statements by Mr Ward on the proposals to give LEAs places on college governing bodies as a right. The Birmingham chair of governors threatened to quit the AOC as a result. Other Birmingham colleges were similarly incensed and Mr McIntyre sent the exchange of letters to all other principals. "The AOC has assumed an authority beyond even the powers of David Blunkett, the Secretary of State, " he said.
The 1992 FHE Act gives Mr Blunkett powers to reconstitute governing bodies. But it states that such orders "shall not be made unless the Secretary of State has consulted the appropriate council and each further education corporation to which the order relates".
Reactions of other colleges were swift and divided. Adrian Perry, principal of Lambeth College, called it "a fuss over nothing" and said he had "no problems with LEA representation on the board of governors".
Michael Austin, Accrington and Rossendale principal, said: "If we give places on the boards to local authorities as of right, then what other interest groups should have the same guarantees?" Even the local authorities are uncertain about the nature of the trade-off of guarantees which would follow such an agreement. One senior councillor, who is on the board of governors of a large college, said: "I am not convinced we want representation as of right."
The whole question of who has a say in the running of colleges is in the melting pot as the Government sets about rethinking its local and regional government structures.
But Mr McIntyre believes the AOC board has stepped too far, conceding ground to local authorities and Mr Blunkett without any protest. In one of his letters to Mr Ward, he says: "If you or the board of the AOC wish to make a suggestion to ministers on such a fundamental issue as a change to the composition of the Corporation, on which there is a requirement for the Secretary of State to consult ... then the very least we should expect from the AOC is a similar level of consultation."
Mr McIntyre told The TES this week he had been "overwhelmed with replies from principals and governors in FE colleges, supporting my assertion." The preference was not to allow LEA representatives as of right but "on a permissive basis as operated at present".
At the time of the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life, the then Colleges' Employers' Forum and Association for Colleges (which merged last year to form the AOC) protested against any encroachment of LEAs into FE territory.
Nolan was equivocal over local authorities but stressed the board membership "should be a matter of the personal contribution an individual can make. " Lord Nolan recommended: "Appointments to the governing bodies of universities and colleges should be made on the basis of merit, subject to the need to achieve a balance of relevant skills and backgrounds to the boards."
Mr Ward, in a letter to Mr McIntyre, described the question of local accountability as "a continual thorn in the sector's flesh over the past two years, and one which it has not been possible to neutralise".
He insisted that guarantees, such as the right of veto on appointments, had been secured in advance of any future firm negotiations with authorities.
"Given the influence which local authorities can be expected to have with the new Government, it was our considered judgment that the sector would gain if an amicable agreement could be reached."