He who pipes up to ministers calls the tune
Steve Hook meets the new president of the AoC
Step out of the station on a rainy day in Crewe and you could be forgiven for thinking there is little to commend it. While in most big cities you would emerge in the town centre - or at least with an idea of how to get there - Crewe leaves you guessing.
In fact, the town has a great deal to show off about - not least its status as home to Bentley Motor Cars. And something else it can be proud of is South Cheshire College, one of the most consistently successful further education institutions in the country.
But then further education, like Crewe, is not keen on trumpeting its achievements. All this could change, however, under David Collins, the college's principal and newly appointed first president of the Association of Colleges (AoC).
Dr Collins is determined that the expertise of his colleagues around the country will be readily available to ministers, and he is confident that, in future, colleges will spend more time shaping FE policy.
One of his first actions has been to invite principals to put their names forward if they have a particular area of knowledge that could be of use to the Government. These principals could yet become part of an army of ministerial advisers.
The realisation that the association needs to go on the front foot and involve its members more has not come out of the blue. The 157 Group of large, successful colleges has the ear of ministers, and one of its hallmarks has been its commitment to making sure that Whitehall hears directly from principals.
Dr Collins acknowledges that the group has been a spur to action. "The sector has people with a great deal of talent, whose views, many members feel, have not been reflected in meetings with the Government - and that has a lot to do with the 157 Group forming," he says.
"Previously, the way things tended to work was that the chief executive and the deputy chief executive were the main conduit for information. Ministers have told us they want to be exposed to more people doing the job, and our members have told us they want to be more involved."
While happy to acknowledge the voice of the 157 Group, Dr Collins emphasises that there is a single choir - and this is led by the AoC.
He has his own distinct voice and, as head of a college that has just been awarded "outstanding" grades by Ofsted, it is one ministers cannot ignore.
Dr Collins has his own views about some of the sacred cows of FE policy. He has been resistant to bringing 14- to 16-year-olds into colleges, a move that, in his view, can detract from the core value of further education. But he plans to embrace the policy on his own terms by allowing schoolchildren in one day a week while his college's post-16 students are off-site.
He says there are other "closeted rebels" in further education who need to be heard. But, in essence, he sees the AoC as an organisation that does business with the Government rather than obstructing it.
"There may need to be a process where we discuss the options and implications of policies, and there may be some trade-offs," he says.
"There are examples where calling for our views beforehand would have benefited an announcement. We need to make ourselves heard before policy is made."
Colleges have been working with the Conservative Party on the skills paper being prepared by John Hayes, the Tory further education spokesman.
The new funding arrangements would see an increased role for local authorities, and Dr Collins believes the AoC will have a job on its hands helping them understand colleges.
"Since 1993, they have not been closely involved with the college sector, and they aren't necessarily geared up to deal with the responsibility they will have," he says.
"The real challenge is going to be local authorities getting together and committing to their plans for college funding on an annual basis."
Getting closer to ministers does not mean that colleges will surrender what they regard as the right to define their own mission.
If the new relationship with ministers enables colleges to get their hands on the tiller of policy, they may want to change course towards adult education, with particular emphasis on over-25s and non-vocational students.
"The weakness at the moment is that there is a philosophy of lifelong learning, and its necessity is accepted, but the reality does not reflect that," Dr Collins says. "We are front-loaded with resources focused up to 25.
"There is the question of those with mid-life career crises. There is also the question of non-vocational learning.
"I think the long-term success of this country has got as much to do with the cultural environment as anything else. It's about the country being a pleasant and safe environment to be in.
"There are social benefits that go beyond education - the potential to save a small fortune on social security and health costs if we keep people active, at a small cost to FE."
But, for Dr Collins, the devil is in the detail rather than the substance of the skills policy that has driven funding in recent years. His difficulty is that he does not recognise the "demand-led" approach of meeting employers' needs as reflecting his community in the north of England. This is where a closer relationship between ministers and individual colleges could lead to more sophisticated policymaking in future.
In 2001, when the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was born in a blaze of presentations about the link between vocational education and economic performance, the message was: give employers what they want by replacing "education, education, education" with skills, skills, skills, and we can turn the UK into a blue-chip country as well as eliminating the skills- poor. Classic New Labour stuff: simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic.
But beyond the truism that a skilled worker is more productive than a cack-handed one, there is a feeling of unease among many principals that further education, or education in general, is prime suspect in the failure of British industry. In fact, much of the workforce during the past 15 years of relative economic success was the product of an era that pre-dated the skills council.
The problem for many colleges is that they would like to spend more time being business-facing in their own communities and less time responding to a Whitehall interpretation of what employers want - an interpretation that, many would say, loses something in translation.
"Market economics works well in colleges," says Dr Collins, "but strategic commissioning doesn't understand the marketplace."
With the LSC about to go, and post-19 education to come under the new Skills Funding Agency, colleges have the chance to reassert themselves. And if the new choir is being led by the AoC, the 157 Group may be happy to sing along, knowing that it has played a major role in calling the tune.