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Access, success, progress

Credit-based courses are designed to help students stick at their studies. They have grown spectacularly in recent years

REMEMBER 1993? Camouflaged among the many challenges facing further education - outcome-related funding, the 16-hour rule, high unemployment rates, bust TECs and incorporation - was the National Audit Commission's report, "Unfinished Business", deploring the "drop-out" rate in colleges such as ours. Rather than "drop-out", the response from Lewisham and Woolwich colleges talked of a "cop-out" on the part of systems that failed to take into account the circumstances under which our students studied successfully, though partially, and had no way to measure the distance travelled by them.

Lying between the compulsory schools' sector and the selective sector of higher education, FE must provide the adaptive layer in such gaping systems promising its students prospects, offering not only quality, fitness for purpose, but equality, fitness for context. As Lewisham College's "Strategic Plan 1997-2002" puts it, we intend to be "more than a college, offering more than a qualification, so that our students can thrive".

In 1993, it was clear that we needed a mechanism that would promote access, success and progress, and in that order. In pursuit of these aims, Lewisham and Woolwich colleges set up the TEC-backed South Thames Unitisation project (1994-97) to investigate the applicability of the credit framework, elaborated by the Further Education Unit (now the Further Education Development Agency) to the whole curriculum, choosing as its test-bed key skills (communication and numeracy), English for Speakers of Other Languages, where little or no accreditation was available, a fashion course with incomplete accreditation, and information technology, where accreditation was costly and inflexible.

Working with London Open College Federation, our local Open College Network, and encouraged by the progress of the Welsh Credis Project, our work has demonstrated that credit-based unitisation is a ubiquitously applicable mechanism - though not an ideology - with great benefits to offer to both learners and college.

Learners have benefited because the curriculum has been made more accessible and transparent, their motivation increased by the continuing recognition of their achievements, with regular feedback on progress, because they can move in their chosen direction at their own pace, with mobility between levels, and because the recording of assessment is "employer friendly".

The colleges have benefited from the increased choice and flexibility for their learners, with the consequences for improved recruitment, retention and results; improved institutional development and enhanced staff professionalism via the creation of a common language for diverse practitioners; and a common measure of achievement (credit-based unitisation has also enabled a swifter response to new demands, such as the London HE Progression Accord and Internet or multimedia courses, and to new forms of delivery, such as summer andSaturday schools).

An example: David, an ex-manual worker in the gas industry, registered disabled, joined Lewisham's Computing for Students with Disabilities programme in 1995. Initially wary of IT and lacking confidence, he achieved two units in the first term and nine in the year, at a variety of levels. He had intended to apply for the BTEC national diploma, but his assessment profile showed him capable of undertaking the HND. He is now in his second year, and is expected to go on to complete his degree at the University of Greenwich.

Credit-based unitisation is, however, approaching the limits of its potential in the two colleges in default of a national initiative. Without an agreed protocol for the exchange of approved credit-based units, a less cautious attitude on the part of awarding bodies to the credit-rating of national qualifications and a stronger commitment on the part of FEFC England to a credit-based funding methodology, its full potential cannot be realised.

Credit-based unitisation can offer to government: * a system of assessment equally applicable to academic, vocational work-based and key skills areas, and capable of bridging divides between school, FE and HE and of promoting parity; * a system that focuses on individual needs, improves guidance, enhances access, flexibility and economy in modes of delivery and promotes lifelong learning; * a market-sensitive tool that permits achievement to be consistently audited.

The strategic challenge facing government and the rest of us is now to turn credit into a currency by establishing a national taskforce to move forward: a national credit framework, with a robust and un-bureaucratic quality assurance system; a national unit database; and a national credit transcript, incorporating credit-ratings for all existing qualifications.

Government recently provided Pounds 1 million for Kennedy and Pounds 1 million for Tomlinson. A comparable sum for a credit framework would do much to further widen participation and increase inclusiveness. It would also accelerate achievement. Even better, it could reverse the taunting of teachers that has too frequently characterised the recent critiques.

Further education needs to call for this with one voice, even if in two languages - in English as well as in Welsh. Join the chorus, colleagues.

* The writers are principal and former lecturer respectively at Lewisham College, south London

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