Lauded long-distance

25th November 2011 at 00:00

There seems to be a tendency among ministers to believe that FE can be bought cheaply. They know it has an inferiority complex and so they think it can be flattered into line. Nye Bevan calmed doctors' opposition to the NHS with money ("I stuffed their mouths with gold"); now the Conservatives seem to think they can inflate the posteriors of FE staff with smoke.

Nowhere was that more clear than in education secretary Michael Gove's address to the Association of Colleges' conference last week. If you want to praise an education sector as the best and most innovative of all, then it helps if you bother to turn up. Instead, he sent a video message as if he were a Hollywood star who could not quite bring himself to come and pick up his Bafta. (Even worse, on the second day of the conference, Mr Gove made an announcement in London about apprenticeships at a meeting with employers - why not in Birmingham with the providers he admires so much?)

Further, the manner in which he chose to praise FE showed bizarre blind spots about the history - ancient and modern - of the sector. And considering that he regards it as a forerunner of his reforms of the school sector, that is a worrying sign.

"I am a great admirer of what sixth-form and further education colleges have achieved," he said, describing them as the "inspiration" for reforms in schools. "Unlike some other parts of the education system, there are very rarely any dramas or crises."

Ahem. It is pretty clear that he is talking about incorporation. Some of us remember a few dramas: the #163;7.3 million fraud at Halton College in 1998; the 2001 fraud at Barnsley College; the collapse of individual learning accounts in 2002. The post-incorporation era was even the inspiration for a series of crime novels by Birmingham writer Judith Cutler.

Not that the crises are always of colleges' making. Surely Mr Gove remembers the capital funding crisis that finished off the Learning and Skills Council? He was, after all, shadow secretary responsible for 16-19 education at the time.

We are left to assume that what the education secretary means by the lack of drama from colleges is that they do not bother education secretaries.

They should, in two senses. First, though the science is not yet complete, there is an intriguing correlation between the education sector that complains the least and the one that has the lowest funding and lowest pay. Further research, as they say, is required. But just as the 157 Group was formed as a group of go-getters who had to prove to ministers they could get things done, maybe FE could do with an awkward squad: the 666 Group, perhaps.

Second, the minister should bother himself about colleges: they educate two-thirds of the 16 to 19-year-olds that he is responsible for, after all. For too long, Mr Gove has been phoning in the praise when it comes to FE.

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