One of the throwaway lines in Gillian Shephard's celebrated leaked memo had particular resonance for the colleges. "Stopping the growth of the dynamic further education sector," she observed, "would be difficult to defend. " The sentiments were fine, but the implications were ominous. Does she anticipate a battle with the Treasury over funding for this particular sector, seen as such a national priority when the colleges won incorporation in April l993 that they were promised preferential funding for their first three years of independence?
The growth of the FE sector has indeed been dynamic, moving rapidly from the early exhilaration of independence and expansion into a more cautious mood of consolidation, and now a search for more coherent leadership as challenges pile up over funding, quality, ethics, contracts and curriculum.
But one thing which is now established is that a distinctive college sector is essential both to the national economy and to the education system, overlapping with schools and universities at either end but providing the essential engine to the vocational education revolution. FE may be facing a tough time, but it will go on growing, and demanding our attention.
That is why this week sees the launch of FE Focus, a new section within The TES devoted to the colleges, and all the lecturers, managers, governors and support staff who sail in them. It will also cover other key issues relating to lifelong learning, training, and the wider world of work.
The need for a sharp and critical focus on the sector - made even more coherent politically following the formation of a single Department for Education and Employment - was brought home with the leak of the Gillian Shephard document for the Cabinet Strategy meeting. This week's announcement of a public sector pay freeze for the third year running will not help. Colleges, like all others in education, health and welfare, must fund rises through efficiency gains.
But while the sector is constantly praised by politicians, with its three-year 25 per cent student growth targets bringing in only 16 per cent extra cash, the forthcoming report from the chief inspector for colleges (pages 29 and 34) reveals a structure creaking under the burden of cost-cutting efficiency drives. After inflation and pay rises are accounted for, Government cash for colleges was effectively cut by 5 per cent this year. Alarm bells are sounded, not by the colleges but by Terry Melia himself in a supportive but nonetheless highly critical report.
And while ministers press for ever-lower unit costs many of the entrepreneurial efforts, such as franchising courses to industry, have received a black mark from inspectors. Colleges cannot afford to be complacent. Course completion rates and exam grades are "unacceptably low" in some colleges. Many need to be "more self-critical", instead of looking at themselves through "rose-tinted spectacles".
But weaknesses cannot be tackled by the colleges alone. If, as ministers insist, FE is a success story, then they should not pull the plug on that success. More investment is needed, not least in staff development, if the colleges are to develop the "imaginative" approaches to management which Mr Melia suggests are needed urgently. Research into the bullying of lecturers by middle managers, covered in this week's FE Focus (page 32), highlight the need for better management training. Colleges spend as little as 0.3 per cent of budgets on training (page 45), this at a time of unprecedented change and job insecurity, with colleges devolving management tasks to staff on lower grades Everyone is affected - school-leavers, adult-returners and students from the workplace - if investment in colleges is inadequate. Quality and standards are at issue here too. Mrs Shephard knows that the final year of guaranteed growth is looming; the Treasury will want other priorities. But the national targets cannot be hit without a healthy further education sector.
If only in Confucian terms, the FE future will be interesting. FE Focus will be here to record it.