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Tim plugs a gap in the Tory manifesto

A conservative minster hits the campaign trail

TIM Boswell's political opponents were quick to commiserate with him for what they saw as the abject failure of the Tory manifesto to mention further education.

He, more than any Conservative minister, had won the hearts of the post-16 sector - especially in adult education - at a time when the population could not have been more hostile to his government.

But, as he trod the campaign trail through Towcester and Brackley, the former under secretary for further and higher education dismissed - with the urbane style of a gentleman farmer - the schadenfreude of Liberal Phil Willis and Labour's Malcolm Wicks.

Alongside him were others campaigning with equal fervour - not for his seat (which he held in 1997 with a 7,387 majority) but for recruits to adult learning classes. Mr Boswell sees this as his inheritance and takes due credit for planting the seeds for more vigorous recruitment to lifelong learning - even if Labour, with some further reforms, did reap the benefits.

The Conservative party's FE plans were in the manifesto - but you had to look between the lines. Two areas of reform for immediate attention if the Tories take office, he said, were in school sixth forms and lecturer recruitment and salaries.

Under the Learning and Skills Act, sixth forms join the new post-16 sector and will be funded from next April by the Learning and Skills Council.

"We will freeze the transition and move as swiftly as possible to put sixth forms back under the control of headteachers," he said.

Mr Boswell has his own sense of schadenfreude in the mess Labour has got itself into over salaries. The level of hostility over the Government's failure to address low pay and morale, or to give lecturers parity with schoolteachers was never higher.

It resulted from David Blunkett's failure to target cash and recruitthe right people and harness the resources of the private sector, he said.

"We will introduce more flexible remuneration packages to encourage people to work part-time in colleges and industry." Cash would be targeted to recruit for shortage subjects or where market forces dictate, such as business studies.

But he rejects further radical reforms beyond sixth forms and pay. "It is a matter of watch and see. We've had big changes with the creation of the LSC. It would not be welcomed if we pulled it all apart again."

That said, Mr Boswell reckons problems will soon arise out of what Labour has crafted. "The inspections system is a mess, with 16 to 19-year-olds inspected by the Office for Standards in Education in schools and colleges and by the Adult Learning Inspectorate in the workplace. It won't work. Work-based training is being shunted back into the Employment Service - not a very adept move," he insisted.

"Business involvement seems to be faltering as local discretion has shrunk," he said, accusing Labour of heavy-handed centralisation.

"If you want to implement changes for the chemical industry in Teesside, you can't do a thing without consulting head office in Coventry (the LSC)."

And, he warned, the worst of the old problems the Tories had begun to sort out would re-emerge. The LSC had a planning role divorced from schools and higher education. The vocational A-level would create a "second-best A-level". There would be a quota system, with the local LSCs dictating how many hairdressers a college could recruit. Adult learning funding would continue to favour those who have qualifications rather than those who need them.

"And if you look at the numbers being recruited to FE, they are at best static or falling. The Government came nowhere near recruiting the 750,000 it promised."

Next week: Malcolm Wicks on the election trail

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