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The year failures got the red card;Further education

New Labour's hard men gave no quarter as they tackled under-performers, while talented sides won promotion to beacon status. Harvey McGavin on 12 months in the funny old game of further education.

GOVERNORS at Wirral Metropolitan college barely had time to see in the New Year before Education Secretary David Blunkett was making good his pledge to get tough on failing colleges and asking them to leave.

Board members at the Merseyside college, which was pound;9 million in debt, decided to jump before they were pushed.

The Government's zero-tolerance campaign continued in February with George Mudie talking about red and yellow cards and "sending off" colleges. But the tough-tackling lifelong learning minister had to take an early bath himself in the summer, when he was replaced by Malcolm Wicks.

Bilston community college, meanwhile, was on the relegation trail. It received the worst ever inspection report, confirming its slide from the premier- to non-league status in the space of a few years.

Matthew Boulton college soon joined it in the sin bin after another low scoring encounter with the inspectors.

It seemed that, instead of the famous level playing field that further education is always calling for, life in the sector was still full of ups and downs.

The FEFC was clamping down (on franchising), the University for Industry was setting up (it published a development plan), while a major shake-up of post 16 education and training was revealed in a TES exclusive in April. On a more serious note, one in five of the population had trouble adding things up and writing things down, according to the Moser report.

Bilston and Halton continued to haunt the headlines. The former rose from the ashes to merge with neighbour Wulfrun as Wolverhampton college, while the latter was being dragged over the coals by the National Audit Office and the Further Education Funding Council.

Their year-long investigations upheld only some of the allegations against former principal Martin Jenkins and his deputy Jenny Dolphin, who nevertheless resigned soon afterwards.

May began brightly when the first ten beacon colleges, shining examples all, were unveiled. "We are celebrating what is working well in FE - we must sing about it", David Blunkett said. Rumours that he was about to introduce mandatory karaoke in colleges proved unfounded.

The Skills Task Force delivered its verdict on Britain's vocational training - confusing, incoherent and in need of a complete overhaul. Factors totally unconnected with FE Focus's launch as a pull-out later in the year.

Figures released in June showed that colleges were in overall surplus for the first time since incorporation. But students were still feeling the pinch and the Association of Colleges renewed calls for an extended system of grants and loans.

July brought the long awaited Learning to Succeed White Paper which said goodbye to "Soviet-style wholesale distribution networks" (Blunkett) the Training Standards and Training and Enterprise Councils and hello to the Learning Skills Council - a huge sprawling body with lots of arms, which will take control of most post-16 education and training.

In the tradition of Superman, SuperTed and Superteachers, Derby College Wilmorton created another breed - the superlecturer - rewarding top performers with salaries of up to pound;30,000.

But money troubles loomed large as the academic year began. Sixth-form colleges - neck and neck with top schools in the league tables but unable to compete on pay scales - were worried that they might lose staff to their better-off competitors.

The schoolcollege divide was still being felt in December with Association of Colleges' figures revealing a 30 per cent - now 35 per cent - funding gap between the two sectors.

But, by October, at least one college - North Derbyshire Tertiary - was feeling flush after successfully defending the attempts of private provider Link Training to sue them for pound;2.7 million.

The fall-out from the White Paper was still being felt as the year ended with the Training Standards Council warning of a brain-drain which might jeopardise their remaining inspections and the FEFC grooming the AOC as its successor in representing the sector. At the association's annual conference, a commission was set up to look into race discrimination in the sector. Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks announced huge pay-rises for colleges - but told them not to spend it all on lecturers.

So, as the century ends, what, we wonder, lies in the future? Will the University for Industry mean the end of further education as we know it? Might lecturers one day be replaced by virtual learning consultants?

Or could semi-literate cyborgs take over production of FE Focus? In the fast moving world of FE, change can take you by surprise. But whatever happens, you kan reed all abowt it here furst.

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