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Who will pull the purse strings?

John Graystone on how new Government policies will affect college governors.

The new Labour administration is hitting the ground running, seeking, in David Frost's words, to turn the poetry of electioneering into the prose of Government.

As set out in the Queen's Speech, education and training are its priorities, although most attention will be paid to improving standards in schools. But there are important opportunities for further education colleges.

The appointment of Kim Howells as minister responsible for lifelong learning shows the priority given to continuing education - which, incidentally, was a theme in the manifestos of all three main parties during the election campaign.

A clue to Labour's thinking on FE policy is contained in its discussion document on lifelong learning published last year.

Section 4 sets out a new framework for tertiary education and training. The role of the Further Education Funding Council's regional committees will be "democratised and strengthened" with the inclusion of local education authorities and business.

The work of these committees will be co-ordinated with that of the Government's regional offices. An "appropriate proportion" of funding will be distributed to the regional committees to meet specific local and regional needs and to deliver key national priorities.

Local partnerships will be arranged through lifelong learning forums, including all key stakeholders in post-16 education such as colleges, training and enterprise councils (local enterprise companies in Scotland) and local education authorities.

The use of value-added measures will be developed alongside existing performance criteria.

The Government believes governing bodies "must be fully responsive to the wider community". No problem with that. But consultations are likely on changing the composition of governing bodies to include "mandatory and balanced representation" for local authorities, staff and students as well as higher education institutions. This will be a considerable shift requiring primary legislation.

Two points may be made.

First, governing bodies are currently required to have between 10 and 20 members, of whom at least 50 per cent must be business governors including one TEC nominee. Co-opted local authority, staff and student governors are optional. (The rules are slightly different for sixth-form colleges).

Ninety per cent already have at least one staff governor, two-thirds one student governor and around 40 per cent one or two local authority governors.

The Department for Education and Employment has said governing bodies have interpreted the regulations "fairly widely". The Government clearly intends to give governing bodies less flexibility over their membership.

The second point concerns the word "representative". At present, governors serve as individuals, not as representatives, putting the interests of the college above those of any sectional interests.

If the discussion document is taken literally (and the word representative is often used sloppily), the introduction of "representative" governors would have a dramatic impact on the work and performance of governing bodies.

The Government is likely to want to remove finally any concerns about sleaze in public life. It supports the recommendations of the second report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan, which focused on local public appointed bodies.

Increased openness in selecting governors and the drawing-up of formal codes of conduct and registers of interests, are highlighted in the Labour party discussion document. These have taken place in most governing bodies.

The Government, however, may go further by following the recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee in 1995 that a college should only receive public funds if governors have signed a register of interests. Registers of interest are currently voluntary with some governors of principle refusing to sign.

Colleges will wish to be closely involved in delivering the Labour party pledge to expand and develop the achievement of lifelong learning. They will also expect to make a significant contribution to the Welfare to Work initiative which will bring new money generated from the windfall tax on public utilities.

The Government is committed to relaxing the 16-hour rule and allowing the 18-25 age group to enter full-time education (one of four options) on approved education and training courses.

The next few months will see feverish activity at the DFEE as civil servants draw up papers on a wide range of policies that a fresh and enthusiastic set of ministers will want to have in place.

Governors and senior managers through their associations need to make their voices heard to help shape and influence policies. They will, rightly, be cautious about any regional framework reducing the autonomy of colleges and introducing unnecessary bureaucratic controls on what colleges can do.

They are, however, likely to be more sympathetic to the notion of a regional "steer" setting out regional education and training targets and encouraging co-operation.

They will also want to retain flexibility over the selection of high-quality members of their governing bodies, while ensuring the process is open and that membership reflects local circumstances.

The elegant poetry of the Labour party's manifesto needs to be replaced by the hard prose of everyday reality in which governors and managers live.

And the education promises made in the run-up to the general election must not be like the fading splendour of the Hale-Bopp comet, now sadly disappeared from our skies and not due to return in our lifetime.

John Graystone is chief executive of the Association for Colleges in the Eastern Region.

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