The Association of Colleges must pull together if it is to play a leading role in the learning revolution, says Colin Flint
There have been two defining moments in the short but turbulent life of the Association of Colleges. The first was the first session of the annual conference in Harrogate last November. Delegates assembled against unaccustomed media attention, with the affairs of the chief executive, Roger Ward, being widely dissected in the press.
In Birmingham last week, in a special session of the association, the mood was different. Many wanted to hear the board's account of events since Harrogate, but there was more scepticism than support. Roger Ward's termination deal was not the issue: it was the need for a new start, so that we could begin to feel that there really was a single and effective voice for our sector.
And that was what a large majority agreed. The board should resign and submit itself to new elections. Too many of them had been too closely associated with the departed chief executive. They appointed him twice and they condoned or failed to notice the activities for which he was eventually made to resign.
We cannot afford such self-inflicted wounds. The further education sector is at the most critical time of its life. Only further education can deliver the bulk of the 500,000 new students promised by the prime minister by 2002 and can provide educational success for thousands of people who have been disqualified, rather than enabled, by their previous educational experience. Further education will deliver a substantial part of the government's New Deal and has a key role in the learning revolution. The opportunities are clear; all we have to do is grasp them. And we need a strong and unified sector, and a clear, confident and consistent voice if we are to do so.
That is what our rather public and aggressive debate has been about: how to get that voice, how to win arguments not with each other but with others, how to unify a very diverse sector.
The diversity is obvious. We encompass colleges of agriculture, art, maritime studies and music, adult residential colleges, the large group of sixth-form colleges, and the general further education and tertiary institutions, 285 of them at the last count. Between us we cater for 60 per cent of the nation's 16 to 18-year-olds, provide significant and distinctive amounts of higher education, almost all of the vocational qualifications, almost all of the non-university part-time education. We are the only truly comprehensive part of the entire structure, and we provide opportunity for four million students each year.
So what should happen next, if the colleges are to assume their rightful place in the nation's education system? We might be allowed a degree of cautious optimism about those things under our own control. There is the chance to appoint a new board and chief executive of our association, to offer the right kind of leadership and re-establish the authority and probity that the situation requires. The case for further education must be strongly and clearly put. It is a good case, but it needs vigorous and imaginative partnership from all the participants.
We need a campaign for further education. We should ask Helena Kennedy to become president of our association, and we should seek to bring warring factions together to put the case to a government that shows every sign of wanting to hear it, but has been dismayed by our disarray and disunity.
The need for the campaign was demonstrated last week with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't white paper. The education press told us two weeks ago that it was withdrawn on the orders of Messrs Blair and Brown who were reportedly appalled by its lack of rigour and insufficient reference to examinations and standards. The prime minister is said to have called it "a dog's breakfast".
Well, so is the education system that you have promised to reform, Mr Blair, and you will not achieve your learning revolution by the invocation of Fettes and Oxbridge, nor by expecting everybody to pass exams, nor by Thatcherite guff about gold standards. Read Kennedy. Visit some colleges. Talk to some students, 16-year-olds and adults. Look at the "territorial injustices" of our present systems, as Baroness Blackstone described them at Birmingham. You already know, presumably, about the social injustices in our society.
We can only hope that the green papers are genuinely consultative, and the advice is listened to. If further education seizes its moment, heals itself, gets rid of the funny handshakes, trusts its vision and recognises its strengths, it will give the best advice of all.
Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.