The shiny new face of further education with its caring nature and liberal outlook is challenged by fresh research that has uncovered a "disturbing" and growing trend towards a harder-edged masculine work ethic: a power culture dependent on centralised bureaucracies within a culture of macho management by imposition.
Steve Whitehead, the author of the research on men in management, and a middle manager at Thomas Danby College in Leeds, has attracted attention from the local media, which scents a "male backlash" angle. He points out, however, that it was the feminist movement that inspired him to explore the male species in education management, one of its natural habitats.
Mr Whitehead believes that education is becoming more masculine, a trend that is at odds with college mission statements.
A long series of interviews with male middle and senior managers in further education built up a picture of the enormous changes taking place in this sector as they were perceived by the men who were bringing them about. Recurring themes were a religious zeal linked to notions of personal duty.
Mr Whitehead says: "Several talked of being in control of their work, of having power and influence and of being able to make things happen. But as I talked to them I increasingly felt that this talk was rhetorical, a masculine discourse reflecting more what, as men/managers, they ought to feel."
Two distinct discourses quickly began to emerge. Post-incorporation work culture was described using terms such as action, businesslike, aggression, competition and survival. Mr Whitehead also found overtones of a particular masculinity which spoke of hard-headedness, being tough, and managing by strength and imposition.
Many male managers felt men were "best equipped" for the new competitive environment. Such "gender myths" were uncovered by their talk of natural differences between men and women. The male manager was often considered to be in the fortunate domestic position of being able to put the needs of the organisation first.
There was a general lessening of feelings of compassion. As one interviewee put it, in the old days "you could make space for those not coping but who contributed in different ways. The new culture doesn't allow that support or space. It's much more threatening now".
Another manager, in this case an assistant principal, described his personal dilemma in working for a principal whom he deemed autocratic, domineering and a bully: "I knew what I was doing was not ethical, it was immoral, it wasn't me." His personal life suffered and in the end he walked out of the job.
Mr Whitehead found that many of the men he interviewed were so wrapped up in their work they appeared oblivious to other aspects of their lives. They were action men, he says, active, on the go, restless, never relaxed. "This is seen as positive, an essential aspect of being a good manager."
Most of the men were unable or unwilling to reflect on the implications of being a man in an organisational setting, Mr Whitehead said. "The responses raise questions of identity and awareness, and of equal opportunity - how can men even begin to change their everyday thinking and practices if they see no need to, if they perceive men as the centre, the whole around which all else revolves?" Answers on a postcard please . . .