Man who listens to tales of woe

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Stephen Jones shadows Rob Wye, the LSC's director of strategy, for a day.

Amid the faded elegance of the conference room at Natfhe's London headquarters, just round the corner from King's Cross station, 80 or so people have assembled from across the country.

Above, the incongruous splendour of a chandelier provides illumination.

Below, the largely middle-aged audience is plunged into the deepest gloom.

The conference papers say that they are all members of LEAFEA and HOLEX, which turn out not to be manufacturers of toilet rolls but providers of adult education.

They are here, at the invitation of the Learning and Skills Council, ostensibly to be briefed on the council's ongoing project for a glittering new future, Agenda for Change. However, what they are so unhappy about, these grave men and women from the shires and cities of England, is money - or the lack of it.

They have listened politely to presentations about the agenda's key themes: about funding and its projected simplification (hoorah!); about data and how its collection is to be simplified (yes!); and about the reputation of the sector and how it is to be improved (hmm!). But now they want their say. Not so much on the LSC's promised reforms, as the terrible torments that are happening to them and their institutions at the moment.

Each one has a tale of woe. Each bids to outdo the other in the enormity of their loss. A man from Northamptonshire tells of the wholesale redundancies caused by a near 70 per cent reduction in his FE budget.

In Lincolnshire, we are told, stand two wonderful new adult education buildings: both are half-empty because there's simply not enough cash to run courses in them.

Capping all these stories comes the head of Kent's adult education service and his tale of a whopping pound;1 million sliced from his current budget.

Up at the front of the room, fielding all this flak, is the urbane and unflappable figure of Rob Wye, the LSC's director of strategy - effectively, the second in command of Britain's biggest quango and its pound;10 billion budget.

At first he is robust in his defence of the LSC's position, echoing the Government's determination to make the learners themselves pay more. "There are a lot of people getting free education that they could pay for," he says.

When this goes down like the proverbial lead balloon, he becomes more emollient, more placatory. "That's a good point," he tells one delegate.

"We need to communicate better," to another. Several times he promises to "take points back", though where precisely they will be taken back to is never quite clear.

Despite his best efforts, the indignation levels continue to rise. It's not fair, they lament. Others - sixth forms, further education colleges - get more. In the great chain of FE being, adult education comes at the level of the mollusc! By now there's something of the air of the lynch mob about them. Luckily, however, for Rob and his fellow LSC directors, these people are middle class and English - and, anyway, no one's thought to bring a rope.

When it is over and we are eating lunch in a nearby pub, Rob is philosophical about it all. He reminds me that it's the Government that sets the funding priorities. The LSC simply puts them into practice. He has some sympathy for the pain caused to adult education, but quickly qualifies this by pointing out that the cuts are not random. If funds were cut, it would have been for a reason.

We discuss the cosh the LSC appears to be under at the moment. The day's papers are full of negative stories. The unions are making ominous noises about proposed staff cuts within the LSC itself.

Training organisations are threatening to sue over millions of pounds they say they are owed. Yes, those things are happening, he says. But it's clear - as he sips his pint - that he's perfectly prepared to take them in his stride.

Rob moved up to the LSC's national office in 2002, after a stint running its regional operation in Northamptonshire, where he still lives. Earlier, he'd studied law at Cambridge, before joining the civil service, first at the Department of Employment, then with the now-defunct Manpower Services Commission.

For a man in such a high-profile position, he is remarkably open, personable and unstuffy. When we move on to the LSC's London headquarters for his afternoon's appointments, I look round for the chauffeur-driven car. "What car?" he scoffs, leading me through the pelting rain to the platforms of the Victoria Line.

How does it feel, I ask, as he waits to pop into a quick conflab on "strategy" with LSC chairman Chris Banks, to be so continually under fire from the disgruntled punters of further education? "If you are the biggest elephant in the jungle," he replies, "then you have to accept that they're going to shoot at you."

Then he turns the question back on me, pointing out that plenty of providers have reason to be thankful to the funding body, particularly those looking for big money for new buildings. "And if you are talking about 14-19 partnerships, you'll get lot of positives about the LSC."

Later, I follow him into a session he is chairing on enterprise in education. As in the morning, this task calls on Rob's considerable skills as a listener. Although billed as a meeting, once the chap from the DfES gets started, it quickly turns into a lecture.

For a while, other contributors struggle to do just that: contribute. As the session draws to a close, it is hard for the outsider to see that anything has been achieved. Step forward, Rob, diplomatic skills to the fore. "Well," he says, "that was very helpful. And it gives us a lead into the next meeting."

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