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Who can speak for FE colleges?

Incorporation in 1993 created a need for effective organisations to articulate the interests and concerns of colleges. Some organisations developed in order to take on new roles, while others were created as a specific response to the new world.

It is of serious concern to many in the further education sector that the emergi exceeded its narrow brief of industrial relations to encroach on this sacred territory to the detriment of the sector.

This view should now be challenged before damage is done to the various organisations which are rightly going about the business of representing their members. Even if the original vision of a single voice for FE was widely shared, as opposed to being much talked about, many principals have now come to doubt whether it was either desirable or achievable.

The call for one voice from AFC has become a thinly disguised attempt to gain a dominant position in the sector. An insight into what that single voice might sound like is provided in the recent consultative document from AFC, A manifesto for further education. This document goes beyond facts, analysis and reasoned argument to use combative language and rhetoric in support of a single perspective. In particular the manifesto offers prescriptive solutions and an ideology critical of market forces and government policy. One could be forgiven for thinking that the AFC leadership have an aspiration to form the next government. Many colleges will wish to take issue with not only the style but also the assumptions that we undermine "unity" if we disagree with the prescription. If one voice results in the creation of a new form of political correctness there are many colleges who would not wish to associate themselves with such a manifesto.

One consequence of this debate has been the accusation from some AFC supporters that CEF has stepped outside its remit. Experience since incorporation has shown us that in their role as employers the colleges have a legitimate right to express views on a wide range of issues, and the CEF has become an effective voice. In many instances these views may contrast with those expressed by AFC, and others who have equal legitimacy in expressing opinions, such as the Association for Sixth Form Colleges, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of Principals of Colleges and the Association for College Managements. It is not appropriate, however, for one organisation to publicly criticise the views of others because they are based on a different set of values. It is our responsibility to co-operate when it is in the best interests of our colleges, and to deal with differences by rational argument.

Much of the debate about the future of some of these organisations focuses on the role of chief executives in representing the interest of colleges, and how this might relate to the legitimate involvement of corporation chairs and members. The challenge is to create mechanisms to improve the way in which principals can articulate the major issues and concerns in the sector. APC, CEF and AFC are rightly considering options for the future of their organisations with this in mind, in response to the growing realisation that without improvements or new alignments we are missing opportunities to influence decision-makers. Any action CEF or APC may take to become more effective should not be regarded as a challenge to AFC's aspiration to work with its members on a wide range of educational issues, nor does it downgrade the importance of chairs.

Principals recognise the effectiveness of these various organisations is dependent upon the contribution that we are able to make. Many principals, ourselves included, play a part in more than one of these organisations, and do not welcome the overt rivalry. It is time to put aside the myth that there should be "one voice", recognise that improvements in our organisations are required, and concentrate on influencing the sector through well-argued debate with the decision-makers rather than through rivalry and pseudo-political campaigning.

Nick Lewis is principal of Boxtowe College, Nottingham and Tony Pitcher is principal of South East Essex College, Southend

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