So what exactly is it that you do?

29th October 2004 at 01:00
College principals and politicians are finding out more about each other's jobs thanks to an AoC shadowing scheme. James Sturcke reports

The purple flour stayed at home when David Lawrence, principal of Easton college in Norfolk, went to prime minister's question time in Westminster.

Anyway, they had already put up security screens in the visitors' gallery well before he got there.

His journey to the House of Commons was inspired by the realisation that, despite having contact with local MPs during his dozen years in his post, he knew little about the machinations of politics and how to influence those with their fingers on the purse strings. His 30 minutes at question time had a dramatic effect.

"It was a tremendous experience and brought home the power of effective briefing," he says.

MPs' understanding of colleges is little better. During the party conference season Alan Stanhope, principal of Cornwall college, had to point out to a Liberal Democrat MP that, out of the 250,000 local workforce, 60,000 were at the college for at least some of their time. They include a lot of voters.

However, things are changing. Around 60 MPs or prospective parliamentary candidates at the Tory conference earlier this month signed up for an Association of Colleges' fringe event. Twelve months earlier, you could have counted the numbers of participants on your fingers.

To continue raising the profile of FE, and with thoughts on the coming general election, the AoC has started a scheme for principals, senior managers and MPs to shadow one another. The Parliament and College Exchange Scheme (PACES) tries to give college bosses and politicians practical experience of the challenges each job brings and improve ways of getting their messages across.

The AoC also wants to lift the lid on how parliamentary tools - such as early-day motions, ministerial questions and Commons debates - can be effectively used to help colleges put their case and, ultimately, boost their share of the education budget.

Mr Lawrence and his local Conservative MP for South Norfolk, Richard Bacon, are the PACES guinea pigs.

Mr Lawrence says: "I spend a lot of time talking to MPs about industry problems, such as labour shortages, but little time talking about college problems.

"For a while I have been questioning how effective some of the discussions we have had have been. Part of that was about understanding at a number of different levels. One was an MP's understanding of what the college does, how they are governed and who we teach.

"But I didn't understand how I could contact our local MP effectively, what tools were available to us, like asking parliamentary questions, when you would use them and why."

So Mr Lawrence left his 4,000-student, 800-acre campus, set in countryside seven miles west of Norwich, to shadow Mr Bacon in Westminster. Apart from question time, he attended a public accounts committee hearing into the hospital superbug and watched the politician sift through mountains of information.

"Like me, he gets lots of correspondence and it was interesting to see how he separates the wood from the trees. I have been reluctant to send him information of no interest or use. Now I know how to brief him on important long-term issues when they are going to be debated in the House.

"Back here I spent half a day at a constituency surgery. Many of the issues we both face are not dissimilar - quite a lot of them are to do with individuals and benefits.

"In FE, we can make sure our MPs understand what support colleges can make available to students. One constituent came to the surgery and I was able to answer her questions about eligibility for access funds and learning support. It is an opportunity to develop a good working relationship.

"It is helping Richard to base conclusions on real knowledge rather than purely lobby information. It is practical understanding. Hopefully, a better level of understanding leads to better decision-making."

Mr Lawrence has been able to give Mr Bacon first-hand experience of the difficulty in keeping and replacing tutors when the school sector pays more generous salaries. He has also demonstrated the college's work with 14 to 16-year-olds and its realistic budgetary needs.

"I had not been aware the college had 14-16 provision," says Mr Bacon. "But it has got some 14-year-olds and they love it. A cohort which could be labelled difficult in school is put in an environment where the pupils feel they are not being fed like a sausage machine. They are treated more like adults and they blossom.

"MPs cannot push for a bigger 14-16 budget if they don't know FE is teaching that age group. I would be interested to know the level of knowledge about this -it was a surprise to me."

Mr Bacon, Norfolk South MP since 2001, says visiting the education establishments in his constituency is like painting the Forth Bridge and admits he has not yet been to all the primary schools.

"FE has been seen as a Cinderella in education and it was not top of my list. My awareness of the sector has grown significantly since becoming an MP. If you go from school to university and a job, you can go through life without actually knowing what FE is.

"There is no better way of preparing for education questions in the Commons than by spending time at the institutions in your own constituency.

A spokesperson for the AoC said: "The more politicians understand what we do, and the better we can operate with them, the more powerful will be the voice of colleges."

And not just MPs, but prospective Parliamentary candidates need to be reached, she said.

Mr Bacon agrees: "The power of an MP is one of influence. You are constantly referring back to the sources of information to decide who needs persuading.

"FE is getting a higher profile and it will continue to do so. If the emphasis on university-based education is distorting priorities, then there is an obvious reaction to that which I think is beginning to happen. We need greater emphasis on FE, which has a wider range of skills."

Whatever the stereotypical view of each others' profession, both have nothing but praise for each other. Mr Lawrence says he is impressed by the time and support the MP gives constituents, while Mr Bacon believes the principal is a magnificent motivator.

Mr Lawrence says: "I hope I haven't whinged about our situation. It is about being factual and dispassionate, saying, 'This is what we are trying to do and these are the hurdles. That is the sort of discussion we have been having. I hope it continues long term."

The AoC 's guide for colleges, Working with your local MP, analyses the benefits of links with politicians, how to get involved and how to get maximum media coverage

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