The Association of Colleges' first annual conference this week heralded a new spirit of collaboration in the further education sector. It was not always so. Incorporation, three years ago, brought to colleges the principle of divide and save. It meant breaking the old local authority bureaucracies to create leaner - and meaner - institutions battling against each other for students and having to stay pretty fit to succeed. And if saving is succeeding then the sector has delivered success.
Over the last three years, further education has made a 20 per cent "efficiency gain" while dramatically increasing student numbers. This is now hurting. The Further Education Funding Council's latest annual report revealed a sector Pounds 119 million in debt with 13 per cent of institutions in severe difficulty. At the same time, colleges still feel robbed of recognition compared with higher education.
This week's league tables have led once more to cries from colleges that their most important work - with adults and basic learners - goes unrecorded, which gives them a fainter voice in competition for Government cash.
In the bidding season running up to next Tuesday's budget, the so-called Cinderella sector has been forced to fight for more money against schools, which always appear to do better in the league tables because of their different intake, and universities, with their threat of top-up fees for students. It took a fairy godmother to see Cinderella to the ball and few can envisage Kenneth Clarke in that role.
Instead, colleges are now urged to save themselves by pulling together. Lately, FEFC chiefs have been urging winners from the last three years' competition to offer a helping hand to losers. Sir William Stubbs, outgoing FEFC chief executive, suggested seconding troubleshooters from confident colleges to advise struggling managements.
The idea has been used successfully in South Yorkshire, where Thomas Rotherham Sixth Form College helped its ailing neighbour Rotherham, and less successfully in Salford, where De La Salle Sixth Form College became the first to go under, in spite of similar local help.
Sir William's successor, David Melville, has taken up the baton. He told colleges at the FEFC annual general meeting this month that an "agenda for collaboration" would be a watchword for the sector in the future. At the same time, the FEFC, always anxious to stress its unwillingness to interfere, intends to take an increasingly hands-off approach. Money pressures will force it to reduce its inspection and support services anyway. But this is also to be a concerted policy. The FEFC feels it has guided colleges through their troublesome first few years and they should now be solving most of their own problems, banding together if necessary.
Professor Melville has placed great emphasis on the role of the newly merged representative body, the Association of Colleges, in improving colleges' lot. But turning competition to collaboration, as the AoC knows from its own merger experience, can rarely be achieved without tears.
Colleges may grumble about lack of financial and other support but their managements have, on the whole, enjoyed their three years of independence. Few will readily sacrifice autonomy over their own affairs to hop into bed with other institutions, especially institutions they have hitherto been encouraged to fight tooth and nail or which may be failing.
Collaboration's main advantages - and they are significant - are the financial incentive of pooling resources and a last hope in case of disaster. Desperation may be a poor basis for marriage, but there is no future without survival. For Cinderella, there is no surplus of wealthy princes riding over the horizon.