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Tip for the Association of Colleges: stop being so boring

Who speaks for colleges? Now there's a question that has been awaiting an answer for more than a decade.

In the beginning, dear reader, there were two organisations, both designed, created and funded by the colleges: the Colleges Employers Forum, which dealt with pay and contracts of employment, and the Association for Colleges which gave guidance on everything else. That was an idea whose time never really came. So a marriage was arranged, and once the smoke and smell of cordite had gone, we had a new body: the Association of Colleges, with a crop of dashed hopes and bruised egos to be dealt with.

It was obvious that, to be effective, the association needed to speak confidently, convincingly and above all often to those who funded, regulated and used the sector, to those who worked in it, and equally importantly to the Great British public who know little and care less about further education.

All these groups need to be reminded that there are few topics which get an airing in the media on which FE has nothing interesting to say. Whether it's young people running wild, economic competitiveness, protecting the environment, or entries for the Turner Prize, colleges have a role which needs to be publicly analysed and explained.

It's a tough call. It's almost impossible to say anything about colleges without offending a significant group of them. Big ones, small ones, rural and urban ones, specialists and generalists, rich and poor, successful and failing - all special cases, and they all want their voice to be heard.

To ask colleges what they think of, say, charging adults the full cost of a course, the structure of a level 3 (A-level equivalent) diploma, or how much staff should be paid is like throwing a bone into a pack of raucous dogs of mixed breeds. How do you make sense of the snarls, growls and whimpers? How do you convey the principals' consensus view to the Department for Education and Skills, other than by saying that they are all barking?

And that's the continuing problem for the Association of Colleges. Finding the lowest common denominator of college opinion means coming out with something on the vacuous side of bland. The association would certainly claim to have influenced government thinking on occasion - a sign they do have genuine dialogue engagement with Whitehall. But the triumphs are minor: the odd word here, a slight redrafting there.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that the profile of FE is higher than in the old days. Coverage in the daily press is no longer only about scandal and failure, though the accolade of regular fisticuffs on the Today programme or a substantial item on Newsnight has still to come. Even the snowstorm of government initiatives could be seen as a compliment to the sector and its mouthpiece: we are seen as significant players rather than incomprehensible add-ons.

If this extra attention is the result of the AoC living down its rather lurid past and now being seen as a sensible conduit for information into and out of colleges, then those who work in its impressive offices in Centre Point are entitled to perform a decorous jig. But not with too much abandon: there are some issues which can still spoil the fancy footwork.

Why is the AoC not routinely asked to nominate people from the sector it represents to august bodies or working committees dealing with educational matters? The DfES and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, for example, often pick their own favourites from colleges without reference to the AoC. Why, too, is there not a closer link with the Association of Learning Providers, which brings together private trainers (and almost 100 colleges) to "influence the education and training agenda" as its website puts it? A closer relationship might reveal why private training providers are still not bound by the same requirements for properly qualified staff as colleges, or why their boards of directors do not have to compile a personal declaration of interests and financial status.

Meanwhile, the pay gap between lecturers and schoolteachers yawns as reproachfully as ever; the Government, by ring-fencing funds ever-more firmly, reduces the authority of college managers to manage; the number of colleges has dropped by 15 per cent; and a cluster of high-profile colleges has established itself as the 157 Group, apparently aiming to bypass some of the functions of the AoC. Troubling times for a membership organisation.

So, who speaks for colleges? Romantics would say that the diversity, rising quality and good value for money which characterise FE speak for themselves. Realists might respond that clearly articulated vision backed by decisive leadership typifies the best colleges, the leading companies - and the strongest organisations.

Michael Austin is former principal of Accrington and Rossendale college

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