From the week came strengths

December 8, 1995

My diary says it was just week 46 - not "Education Week", "Further Education Week" or even "Probity in Education Week". Yet it ought to have had a special name for it provided three intriguing firsts. On the Monday, the leader of the opposition got the longest applause of any speaker at the Confederation of British Industry. On the Tuesday Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards of Conduct in Public Life launched the investigation into probity in further and higher education. And on the Friday, the Further Education Funding Council held the first ever annual general meeting of any public spending body.

I was at all three events: listening at the first and the third and giving evidence at the second.

At the CBI Tony Blair showed a consummate skill with quotable one liners. How about "only if we became the knowledge capital of Europe can we become the enterprise capital" or "permanent corporate anorexia cannot bring lasting economic health". But his best line was the punchline of his speech. He said that if he had to single out one reform or one area of investment that his government would use to change society it would be investment in education. By the end of the week the present Government was saying the same.

Historians will remember week 46 of 1995 as the week in which the 1996 election was signalled as the education election. A chance, perhaps, to put some of the mistakes of the past ten years right and to shape the kind of system which post-20th century Britain needs.

On Tuesday of week 46, Lord Nolan took evidence from Sir Geoffrey Holland, the Further Education Funding Council, Natfhe and from the Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers Forum. In the case of the AfC and CEF the evidence was joint evidence, presaging their much sought-after merger. Overall there was a remarkable consensus of view. While Natfhe emphasised the need for more staff representation in the governance of colleges and universities, all contributors suggested the need for modest reform rather than radical reconstruction.

All agreed that the principle of voluntarism - rather than the remuneration of governors - should survive. Most said an ombudsman to help whistle blowers blow whistles might help but would need cautious development. Some felt that we were in danger of overresponding to a handful of scandals and that more inspection was a poor substitute for self-regulation. It wasn't quite "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but it was close.

The only hint of controversy among the witnesses came when FEFC proposed that corporation clerks should have a new role - a backstop role in ensuring the probity of governors. This surfaced again on Friday at the FEFC meeting. This innovative affair, attended by the nation's chairs of governing bodies, rounded off an historic week. The reports on inspection and the council's general business were presented in a smooth and impressive way. Under Bob Gunn's chairmanship the audience responded supportively.

The nearest we got to a controversy was the shareholder who challenged the wisdom of making the clerk to the governors a spy in the camp. This was to be a very long stop function, only exercised when legal advice said the governors were acting wrongly and the chair and the principal would do nothing about it. This answer might do - but I doubt it. And one had the sense that an historic week ended with the signal of some controversy to come.

Keith Scribbins is chair of the College Employers Forum and of governors, South Bristol College.

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