Drawing fresh lines

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Roger Ward, the man further education lecturers love to hate, has been appointed chief executive of the newly-merged super-body for the sector. In an unprecedented declaration of friendly intent, he said: "I draw a line under the past." But the question is: will the past draw a line under him?

Lecturers need little reminding of his past. He entered the FE industrial relations arena four years ago as chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum when FE left local education authority control. Hell-bent on changing the culture, smashing the Silver Book conditions of service, which reigned under LEAs, he went further, engineering the deregulation of employment conditions.

It fitted the culture of the day: more work for less pay under the Government imperative of driving down unit costs while dramatically increasing student numbers. But it was not only the lecturers who were alienated; a sizeable group of principals were offended by his abrasive style and are deeply dismayed by his appointment. Now, suddenly, the architect of the iniquitous 2 per cent budget claw-back - the cash penalty devised for the Treasury and imposed on colleges which failed to push through new flexible contracts - boasts that he was actually the man who convinced ministers to back off.

In his conversion to the greater good of the sector, Roger Ward may seem an unconvincing figure on the road to Damascus. He is a man whose self-promotion is driven by the vested interests of politically powerful groups (employers). But all this is not to condemn him, the new Association of Colleges or the people who put him into office this week. When the CEF was formed to handle industrial relations, a parallel Association for Colleges was set up to lrepresent the whole sector and to look after curriculum and staff development issues. The two reflected the schizophrenia of a management eager to control the newly independent sector but reluctant to leave the cosy relationship with its staff.

That relationship was doomed. The lecturers' union NATFHE lost not only the contracts' dispute but the political argument. Only a fifth of lecturers remain on the Silver Book. And no-one believes NATFHE will see a reversal of fortunes even with a Labour government.

Doomed too was the existence of the separate CEF and AFC, which sustained a rift most damaging to lobbying efforts for more cash and a higher profile for FE. It was AFC chief executive Ruth Gee, brought in when the rift was already deep, who saw most clearly its dangers and who instigated the merger, but she was pipped to the post. Some disappointed principals will undoubtedly feel they wish to have nothing to do with the AOC.

Roger Ward insists, uncharacteristically, that "now is a time for healing". This does not mean a sudden Silver Book conversion, but he has made a number of pledges that he must be held to. There is, he says, "a new company, new agenda, new manifesto, new leadership". He will confront the Treasury and the Further Education Funding Council over inadequate and inequitable funding, he will help forge a single voice with sixth-form colleges and he will lobby in Whitehall, the corridors of power and at political party conferences.

Most of all, he promises to carve out a distinctive role for FE with a clear identity apart from higher education or schools, bringing with him, he hopes, the entire sector's interests, not just principals and governors.

The sector has chosen its leader and Roger Ward must be taken at his word. Indeed, Ruth Gee asks this of everyone, for the sake of unity. The AOC is a massive body with potential clout - and pretty well the only show in town. It is now up to the colleges to tell their chief executive exactly what they expect of him.

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