Unity is the hallmark of sector's demands

Colleges are putting up a unified face to policy-makers over the future of further education as Britain lines up for the General Election.

Management groups are coming together with a remarkable display of common ground across the further education sector.

The Association of Colleges, Association of College Management and Association of Principals of Colleges all advocate a steady-as-she-goes formula of budget stability, college freedom and a greater emphasis on FE as the engine of economic regeneration and training.

But there is a more strident agenda from the rank and file. While the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers concentrates on calls for a co-ordinated national plan of investment in colleges, lecturers' union NATFHE wants a virtual return to pre-incorporation days.

The TES surveyed opinion of key management groups and unions for their manifesto demands.

The union's pre-election policy statement calls for a reversal of efficiency cuts to bring o1.9 billion into FE, with a return to national pay bargaining, an end to the marketplace in education, and reform of the Further Education Funding Council and college governing bodies.

But despite the clear differences over contracts and the government of the sector, there is unity over the move to streamline qualifications and awarding bodies, and calls to increase student support and reform benefit rules. And the coherent push towards a recognition of colleges' work and their role in bolstering the economy represents a hitherto unseen unity across the sector.

That, coming close on the highly co-ordinated campaign against cuts in expansion cash, will be vital as colleges leaders lobby for a slice of the policy action during the incoming government's first 100 days.

College leaders feel the storm of protest over threats to axe demand-led funding has given them muscle which may influence the new management at the Department for Education and Employment.

They cannot shake off the feeling that the idea of widespread investment in further education is nothing more than a pipedream, but there is a determination to raise the profile of FE.

John Brennan, Association of Colleges policy director, said: "When we see the colour of their eyes we shall be in there with a list."

Ray Dowd, president of the Association of College Management, said: "Further education has traditionally had a very low profile, possibly because people do not understand it.

"Politicians go for things which they believe are vote-catchers. Universities and schools tend to get a much higher profile.

"But I think the sector has come of age and it's the first time there has been a unified voice making sure the investment is made in colleges."

Ben Bennett, chairman of the Association of Principals of Colleges, reflected the general lack of optimism that an incoming government would invest heavily in further education. And he called for a loosening of the ties which bind colleges to the Further Education Funding Council, to free principals to seek private sector funding.

Other top priorities are changes to the benefits system to allow more unemployed people into FE and a more generous student support system further to open colleges to new entrants.

Mr Bennett said: "The sector feels that the estimates the DFEE has done on funding schools, colleges and training and enterprise councils are not accurate, and colleges are the best value for money and are worth additional investment.

"We would look for stability - just as schools have had huge changes over the last four years and want stability, so we would like time to build partnerships."

Next week: Internet survey of

the training and enterprise councils' wish list

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