A single voice for the further education sector has finally emerged after sixth-form college leaders voted overwhelmingly to merge their association with the FE counterpart.
The expanded Association of Colleges now represents over 95 per cent of all colleges in the sector, following the decision to wind up the Sixth-Form Colleges Association (APVIC).
Roger Ward, the AOC's chief executive, has made no secret of his plan to create for 457 colleges the FE equivalent of the higher education Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The vote at APVIC's annual conference was passed 84 votes to 14.
It follows 18 months of fraught negotiations as sixth-form college principals and governors were concerned not to lose a distinctive identity.Moves for a fast-track merger by a pressure group of 25 principals were defeated in a knife-edge vote 12 months ago. The old Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers' Forum were then in even more acrimonious negotiations for a merger that eventually led to the creation of the AOC.
Despite warnings within APVIC that sixth-form colleges would be marginalised unless they were in at the birth of the new body, a more cautious approach was backed by the 1995 annual conference.
This has won concessions. When the merger takes place on January 1, sixth-form colleges will have four seats on the board and a special section within the AOC to represent the special interests of the 16-19 age group that dominates their intake. John Brennan, the AOC's policy director,will be assigned full time to look after their interests.
It will also retain its own sixth-form colleges employers' forum for negotiations with staff on pay and conditions. Mr Ward and others in the old CEF and the AFC were adamant a year ago that this concession could never be made.
The separate employers' forum arose because sixth-form colleges were in the schools sector before the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act moved them into FE. It has been regarded jealously by leaders of the colleges lecturers' union NATFHE which has seen its members' conditions and pay hammered while those of sixth-form college staff have been substantially protected.
The merger backing by APVIC also represents a sea-change in attitudes towards Mr Ward. Many principals resisted merger last year, saying they wanted no part of an organisation headed by him. Their hopes rested on a victory for the AFC's chief executive, Ruth Gee, who lost to Mr Ward in the contest to head the AOC.
At this year's APVIC annual conference, members made comments such as: "Roger Ward is a new man." There was also an awareness, however, that the association might wither as membership drifted away to the new AOC.
However, Howard Clarke, APVIC chairman, said: "The decision to go ahead with the merger was based on one issue: the clear need for the sector to speak with one voice."
The continued pressures from the Government for continued economies - which would continue, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, told the APVIC conference - had focused the minds on all colleges. The differences in pay and conditions at sixth-form colleges and FE colleges were not as significant as the need to wrest more cash from Government.