"COLLEGES have always been at the forefront of social inclusion in learning. They are rooted in their communities and the expansion of opportunities in further education has reached into all sections of our society. We still have much more to do, of course, but widening participation has become a reality in many areas, with imaginative and well-planned schemes to promote social inclusion.
"Too often, however, the media has downplayed or ignored the contribution that further education makes to our economy and our society. This is partly the result of ignorance, but also of history. Too few people in the media have any direct understanding of further education, but that in itself is a reflection of an historical disdain for vocational learning, particularly in England. Although FE colleges are the biggest providers of A-levels, they are associated with vocational provision, and this provision has historically been seen as second-rate and second-best.
"This attitude has held us back for far too long. In a knowledge-based economy, we need to recognise and reward high-quality, vocationally-focused learning. Earlier this week I announced the creation of new, two-year foundation degrees. These will open up new routes into higher education, providing a flexible building block for lifelong learning. It will help us ensure that we can tackle the skills deficit at critical intermediate levels.
"But I also want to ensure that we have a robust ladder of progression up into higher education for those who want to pursue vocational options at school and beyond. So at the Further Education Funding Council annual conference, I announced major reforms to vocational education programmes and, in particular, a huge boost to apprenticeships. We will create a clear new structure for apprenticeships - with new foundation modern apprenticeships, leading up to advanced modern apprenticeships. This will allow people to build towards higher levels of learning.
"We will boost the knowledge and understanding required from apprenticeships, ensuring that young people develop knowledge and understanding alongside skills. I want learning at school and beyond to equip all young people, including those who choose vocational options, with creativity and thinking skills, as well as the basics, so that they ente adult life as rounded individuals, able to contribute to their communities as well as the workplace.
"We will also ensure that apprenticeship programmes include specified periods of off-the-job learning at a college or other provider, and that the duration of the apprenticeship is set at a minimum level, such as two years for advanced modern apprenticeships. And for those studying full-time at college at advanced level, we will strengthen the standards of level 3 general national vocational qualifications and rename them vocational A-levels.
"These changes build on the recommendations of the skills task force's second report and they will drive forward a step change in standards for vocational learning.
"Through learning, we add value to people's lives. It is not always easy. For example, in Knowsley, only 24 per cent of 16-year-olds left school in 1999 with five or more GCSEs at grade C and above, compared with the national average of 47 per cent. At Knowsley College, in some national vocational qualification classes, the average level of qualification on intake is less than one grade G per student. Meanwhile, 73 per cent of Knowsley College's enrolments come from deprived areas compared with 25 per cent as a national average.
"But the college has developed its own method and measures of value-added designed to identify those students most in need of additional support. By identifying the precise needs of students, providing help with basic or key skills, Knowsley College ensures its results are well above the FE sector average for achievement, despite the harsh reality of poor prior attainment.
"We can learn from these lessons of success, and for our part we are helping to spread best practice. Beacon colleges, like Knowsley, are already leading the way, getting cash through the FE Standards Fund to help explain their secrets of success to others.
"I hope that the five new FE beacons, announced on Wednesday, will also play their part. The Beacon colleges have shown that the universal features of success are good leadership, efficient management, and wise and imaginative governance. I congratulate them on their success, and want all colleges to emulate and aspire to this kind of excellence. By using value added to target support on students' needs we shall make the step change we need to higher retention, rising achievement rates and wider participation in communities."