England and Scotland really are two nations when it comes to further education. Two major conferences this week revealed just how stark the difference has become since devolution.
At the first, Alan Johnson, in only his second speech as Education Secretary, cracked the whip at poor-performing colleges. "I will increase the Learning and Skills Council's powers of intervention through legislation if I have to," he told the Quality Improvement Agency conference in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, north of the border in Aviemore, Allan Wilson, deputy minister for lifelong learning, praised the Association of Scotland's Colleges'
conference for the "outstanding success" of the sector. Citing the penultimate report of Scotland's "Foster review", Unlocking potential, published at the conference, he said: "The college sector turns every pound;1 we invest into an asset worth pound;3.20. That gives me ammunition to do more for colleges when I meet (First Minister) Jack McConnell."
Does that mean colleges are better in Scotland? Not in the least. Overall performance north and south is on a par. However, as one college principal put it: "Your ministers see the glass as half empty; ours see it as half full and deserving of a top up."
Whether this means the Scots will do better than the English and Welsh from the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2007 is a moot point. What is of most significance is the difference in political approach - epitomised by the two reviews - on either side of the border. English governments use inquiries to distance themselves from trouble. They appoint a "great"
person to make a grand sweep of affairs, with follow-up consultations.
The Scottish Executive creates inquiry teams - in this case with half the members drawn from colleges - and includes consultations as part of the scrutiny. That is not to say everything is smooth running. Blood was spilt in behind-the-scenes clashes between Scottish Executive officials and professionals. But, already, before the final report is printed, there is a great sense of ownership within the colleges.
So, why didn't Alan Johnson make sure the long-awaited quality improvement strategy - or a penultimate report on it - was published at the QIA's first conference? The reason, of course, is that the Government wants to control everything. As a result, many delegates left the conference with the impression that the new agency was just another tool of government and that they, the professionals, were not to be trusted.
If ministers really want to know how to get the co-operation of colleges and other agencies, they might consider taking the night sleeper to Edinburgh and then head for the Highlands.