Whitehall insider hit his target

The Further Education Development Agency has upset principals who would like to spend its multi-million pound budget themselves. Ben Russell spoke to its head

Stephen Crowne is a classic Whitehall insider, plucked in 1994 from the corridors of power at the former Department for Education to set up and run a new commercial super-quango for colleges.

Speaking after getting the top job at the Further Education Development Agency (a five-year, fixed-term contract), Mr Crowne said that if his organisation was not a leading force in FE within five years, he would have failed.

Certainly Mr Crowne - an avid fan of the 1960s rock band, the Grateful Dead - had the background for the job. A history degree from Queen's College, Cambridge, led straight into the corridors of power as secretary to the Trenamen review of the then Schools Council.

The job opened the door to the private office of former education junior minister Rhodes Boyson and on up to responsibility for the new GCSE in 1985, the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council in 1988 and FE in 1991, a job he left in 1994 to head the colleges' new research and training quango, the Further Education Development Agency.

Three years down the line, the Further Education Unit has been successfully merged with the Staff College in Bristol and the super-quango - the Further Education Development Agency, or FEDA to its friends - has a multi-million pound budget.

It sounds like an unqualified success story. FEDA churns out reports, it has developed major management training and information technology projects, and is at the heart of plans to create new national training standards for lecturers.

But FEDA has an image problem.

The agency features high on principals' list of moans, helped there by that annual budget - cash some feel could be better spent directly by them.

And FEDA's unassailable position as custodian of Government contracts concerning FE has also been dented, with the decision to award the Department for Education and Employment's inclusive learning contract to the Association of Colleges.

Certainly the AOC - and its ebullient chief executive, Roger Ward - has been Stephen Crowne's rival-in-chief during months past. But now there is a new atmosphere of partnership, with much talk of collaboration.

And the appointment of Terry Melia, former chief inspector of colleges, to the agency's chairmanship has done much to silence the cynics.

Mr Crowne is nothing if not optimistic about FEDA's role under the new administration at Westminster, talking of raising the organisation's profile and building its position as a key player in the New Labour world of partnerships and economic regeneration.

He has much on which to base his optimism. FEDA is at the centre of the efforts by the further education staff development forum to develop teaching standards for lecturers - creating the first moves towards a proper qualification for staff in the FE sector.

The agency's Quality in Information and Learning Technology (QUILT) programme is at the forefront of developing the use of computer technology within colleges, and new research is beginning to place an economic value on the role of FE colleges. The new fashion for qualifications based on credits is founded upon long-term research by FEDA staff.

Three years ago, Mr Crowne was clear about his mission. "I have pinned my career on this," he said. "I want to make a success of it".

He was also clear then that the agency would take three to five years to get up and running. The aim: to create a very powerful force in FE.

Three years on, FEDA may not have silenced its most vocal critics, but its wide-ranging influence behind the scenes is beginning to show.

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