`WE DON'T TRAIN AT AN APPROPRIATE LEVEL'
Tory - Neil Carmichael
If, as is entirely possible, Neil Carmichael wins Stroud for the Conservatives next week, then further education ought to be able to count on another good friend in the House of Commons.
The former university lecturer and governor of three FE colleges needs a swing of less than one per cent to overturn the slender 1,000 majority held by Labour's David Drew, who is also a former university lecturer and teacher.
The seat, 16th on the Conservatives' list of target marginals, may yet develop into a three-horse race, but the Liberal Democrats have a lot of ground to cover, polling around 14,000 fewer votes than Labour and the Conservatives in 2005.
As a governor of Stroud College and a former governor of two other FE colleges, Mr Carmichael has a solid grasp of the issues facing the sector.
"FE is a very big and important sector and I think it is sometimes overlooked," he says. "It really does provide excellent education for people in key areas.
"However, there is far too much bureaucracy. Colleges need to be able to deal more directly with employers and students if they are going to be flexible."
He says that the current cuts in public funding, causing colleges to shed jobs and close courses, are regrettable and that providers must be set free to build better financial links with the private sector.
Despite outside perceptions that the ancient market town of Stroud is an essentially rural seat, the constituency is host to a number of small- and medium-sized engineering businesses (SMEs).
Underlining the point, Mr Carmichael plugs Stroud College's two new BTEC engineering qualifications, which were launched this week and will run from September this year.
"We need to support and enhance the engineering skills within small- and medium-sized buisinesses," he says. "That's why the Conservatives are going to increase apprenticeships that we want SMEs to take up."
He is scathing of the billion-pound Train to Gain scheme, which the Conservatives would raid to provide more money for apprenticeships.
"It largely trains up to level 2, while the rest of Europe is training up to level 3," he says. "We are simply not training at an appropriate level."
Perhaps unusually for someone who farmed for almost two decades, Mr Carmichael studied politics at Nottingham University. As a visiting lecturer at Sunderland and De Montfort universities in the 1990s he lectured on British political history and rural economics in Europe.
His opponent David Drew is also a Nottingham University graduate, although not a contemporary.
After three-and-a-half weeks of campaigning and another one to go, Mr Carmichael says things are going well, with no noticeable Lib Dem surge locally because, he says, "this is a Labour-Conservative seat".
But the fact that he was speaking to FE Focus at 10pm is testimony to the intensity and work involved in a general election campaign in a closely contested marginal seat.
"This is the life of a prospective parliamentary candidate," he says. "Work stops only when you go to bed."
`I'M A POLITICIAN BY ACCIDENT'
Labour - Nic Dakin
For a man who describes himself as an "accidental politician", Nic Dakin has an impressive track record.
While he rose through the management ranks at John Leggott Sixth Form College, he was also serving as leader of North Lincolnshire Council for six years.
Now he is running the college as principal while he campaigns to be elected as MP for Scunthorpe, after his predecessor Labour MP Elliot Morley stood down in the wake of the expenses scandal.
Mr Dakin has taken the campaign period as annual leave, but still finds himself in college for around four hours a day before hitting the streets to canvass in the afternoons. "Other people will be the judge of whether I'm doing it well or not!" he says. "It's manageable. I've got an understanding staff and an understanding leadership team who are able to run the ship when I'm not there. The governors are fully supportive."
Mr Dakin says he became involved in politics when he was asked to stand as a councillor after the local government reorganisation that created North Lincolnshire Council. "I see myself as very much a politician by accident," he says.
But, he says, there is no easy formula to combining a political and an educational career, beyond having an understanding employer: "You have to be slightly mad, I think. It's not easy!"
With his predecessor enjoying a majority of nearly 9,000 votes, Mr Dakin is very likely to become a rare representative of FE in Parliament. The reaction to the expenses scandal may complicate things, although he says most of the voters who have made up their minds intend to vote Labour, perhaps in part due to his strong local reputation.
His nearest challenger is likely to be paediatrician Caroline Johnson, for the Conservatives, while the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, UK Independence Party and the BNP are also fielding candidates.
Mr Dakin says he hoped his record in education would resonate at the polls. "My personal view is that politics does need some people involved who have got their feet on the ground, working on the front line of whatever job it may be," he says.
He will not be ordering staff to troop down to the polls and cast their vote for him, however.
"I suppose some of them might vote for me to get rid of me from the college," he jokes. "But I was canvassing on the doorstep and I had one or two people say they wouldn't vote for me because they don't want me to leave the college. It's flattering in a way!"
On education, Mr Dakin says there had been too much focus on structures and ideology, when all that was needed was to recruit good teachers and leaders and let them work.
"Politicians have lost the trust of professionals and we need to reconnect with them, because they are the people who do the job day-in, day-out," he says.
"I've spent a lifetime in teaching and if I'm elected to Parliament I'm not going to abandon that commitment to sixth form colleges, to FE and to lifelong learning."
Whatever May 6 brings, the accidental politician is not showing signs of nerves. "In some ways I see this as a rather bizarre job application, where the interview panel is just somewhat larger than normal," he says.
`I FEEL LABOUR HAS SLIPPED US INTO THIS'
Lib Dem - Ros Kayes
In south Dorset, Ros Kayes has given up her job as head of citizenship at Yeovil College to challenge former schools minister Jim Knight in the election.
Ms Kayes, who is working as an examiner to pay the bills during her campaign, will be standing for the Liberal Democrats.
As someone directly affected by his policies, she relishes facing the minister in the hustings and polls. "I'm quite critical of some of the things he's done as schools minister, like all-age academies," she says. Other wide-ranging changes to education had been preceded by national reviews and extensive consultation, she adds. "I feel Labour has just slipped us into this."
Ms Kayes says she would like the chance to be a voice for further education in Parliament. "Since the 1980s, FE has been buffeted from one side to the other," she says. "Funding was taken away from local authorities and given to the Learning and Skills Council, then given back to local authorities. All this has had a huge effect on morale."
But on the other hand, she is very much an underdog in this contest, so much so that she talks about returning to teach in September, forgetting momentarily the fiction that all candidates must maintain they can win, however unlikely it seems.
In the last election, the Conservatives were less than 2,000 votes short of unseating the minister, but the Liberal Democrats were more than 10,000 votes behind. Greens, UKIP and the Movement for Active Democracy (MAD) are also standing.
Without constituency staff, Ms Kayes' day begins at 7am, writing emails and press releases. From lunchtime until the evening, she is knocking on doors.
"I wouldn't have been able to do this if I was teaching," she says. "Teaching is far more stressful than running an election campaign.
"I don't get recognised by former students much in Weymouth because I've done most of my teaching in Yeovil, but I did get an email from a student who said, `I've just seen your blog and we hope you win!'
"My colleague, who is a county councillor, Howard Legg, teaches in Weymouth and when we go out he's always meeting former students and parents. That's a bonus."
Being a teacher in FE is an asset in campaigning, she says, because it is a job people respect and it relates to their everyday experience.
"People know that we understand a wider range of issues than someone who doesn't have that range of experience with different backgrounds," Ms Kayes says. "They know we're somebody who is good at dealing with people, and they trust us more."
But is life in the classroom good preparation for the cut-and-thrust of debate in Parliament? Is it tougher to face down a braying House of Commons or to deal with a roomful of fractious teenagers on a Friday afternoon?
"Oh, the rowdy group of teenagers on a Friday would be much harder," she says. "I would have no trouble dealing with the MPs."