21st February 1997 at 00:00
Once upon a time it all sounded so easy. Simply take the advice of the sainted Sir Ron Dearing and merge the quangos responsible for advising government on academic and vocational education, thus moving towards the promised land of Parity of Esteem.

So a government consultation swiftly agreed that a merger was the best way forward, turning the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications into a superquango.

The timetable was clear: name it, appoint a chairman (preferably a well-known industrialist), then get a chief executive in place by, oh, end of January so that with the passing of the necessary legislation all was ticketyboo for a September start.

But - uniquely among Sir Ron's brainchildren - this project seems jinxed. September saw the Great Naming Fiasco: certain ridicule was avoided when an alert SCAA official realised the proposed title made up the acronym QUACC.

Instead, they chose the Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, which sounds very rude indeed. The Bishop of Ripon is trying to amend this in the Lords, ostensibly because the proposed name excludes religious education from its remit.

Then there was the personnel problem: finding a chair who could then oversee senior appointments. An advertisement appeared in the autumn, but suitable candidates did not. Sir Ron refused to have his trusty sword arm twisted yet again.

The appointing of a chief executive was delayed, and delayed. Then there were plans to advertise anyway. Then the top civil servants' union, the First Division Association, put paid to that. Under European legislation, the only admissible candidates were currently doing the same job in the two pre-merger organisations.

So two interviews took place in January, and Dr Nick Tate - a media-friendly figure, thanks to his views on morality, the classics and calculators - won the day.

Meanwhile, headhunters were scouring the worlds of industry and further education to find a potential chairperson acceptable to ministers current and putative (Labour has been fully consulted) and who actually wants the job.

Now it sounds as if the long wait is over. On the second trawl, a suitable short-list has been drawn up. Sources in the murky world of FE have been touting round the name of Howard Phelps (chairman of the Association of Colleges) as their man, but he hotly denies it.

Of the various names being bandied around by the great and the good, two appear to stand up to scrutiny.

One is Sir Bryan Nicholson, who satisfies on two fronts: impeccable industrial connections (ex-CBI chair, chairman of BUPA) and as a member of Sir Ron Dearing's former Post Office Mafia. Industry sources, however, suggest he may already have turned down an offer.

The other likely contender is Sir William Stubbs, late of the Further Education Funding Council and currently rector of the London Institute. Worsted opponents report that "machiavellian" Sir William possesses "gunslinger's eyes". Even the wily Roger Ward of the Association of Colleges acknowledged Sir William's talents for getting his way in negotiations. "He is a very elegant street-fighter," he drooled. Sounds like a worthy successor to Sir Ron.

Rarely can a routine ministerial speech have been received so well as one given in a Brighton ballroom last week.

Granted, it involved the spending of an extra million quid on computers for teachers, as the junior education minister Lord Henley was eager to tell delegates at the National Association of Advisers in Computer Education conference.

At the time of delivery, however, his lordship was stuck on a train some 20 miles north, which came to a halt when the roof of a country railway station blew on to the line.

Since Henley had to dash back directly after the speech anyway, thanks to a two-line Whip in the Lords, it fell to the man who had written much of the text - mandarin Robin Ritzema - to deliver it. Fortunately, he had been booked in his own capacity as the highlight of the afternoon's proceedings.

But there were a few problems. For instance, ministerial speeches have the text blown up to a size that can be read at arm's length. Not Mr Ritzema's copy. And then there was the small matter of the chatty asides, carefully scripted for Lord Henley. The opening line brought gales of laughter in itself: "How nice to have a trip to the seaside, albeit for half a day." No such luck, minister.

As it turned out, it was Mr Ritzema's second crisis in two days. Heading a team that had been transferred from the opulence of the Department for Education and Employment's Sanctuary Buildings - where water babbles and plants trail - to the grim Caxton House, he had been determined to jolly things up. On the cheap, of course.

So a job lot of pictures from Shropshire schoolchildren was commissioned, coach and sarnies laid on, minister Robin Squire put on standby and all was ready for the great opening ceremony. The only problem was the young artists stranded somewhere in the traffic.

As Mr Ritzema put it, ruefully: "Yesterday morning I had a minister and no audience. Today, I've got an audience and no minister. It just shows you what 24 hours in the life of a civil servant can be like."

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