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Beacon Awards to light up Cardiff conference

Start when you want, attend when you want, study at your own pace - and the Plymouth Open Access Centre is open 50 weeks a year.

The Flexible Learning Department of the Plymouth College of Further Education will be one of the stars at next week's conference of the Association of Colleges in Cardiff. It has won a prestigious Beacon Award for developing teaching and learning, and will be given funds from British Telecom for its success.

The emphasis of the centre is on distance learning. Some students cannot attend college because they live in isolated rural communities. They have the option of attending a college outreach centre, housed in local venues. They have immediate tutorial support through the video links to the staff at the main college, and not only can they talk, but the college staff can take over their computers to provide tuition.

Students with disabilities who cannot reach any centre can have the video link installed in their own homes. Currently, about 80 students a year are learning from their own homes.

This is just one of the projects managed by the AoC and supported by industry. The Beacon Awards are now in their third year and have gained an impressive number of sponsors including BT, the BBC, British Aerospace, the Post Office, the Boots Company, United Biscuits and Whitbread, the brewers.

The Beacon Award winners for 19967 will be announced at the AoC conference on 19 November. Judith Norrington, the AoC curriculum guru, said: "These awards are very important because they support programmes already running. They support colleges who have already demonstrated that an idea is up and running, but which need that extra bit of help to ensure they can progress.

"To some extent it is a reward for endeavour and excellence. But more importantly these awards are a shop window so that everyone can look in and see the quality and breadth of FE provision.

"There have been links between manufacturers and FE colleges for years, but we are going much further. The Beacon Awards make the links between vocational education and industry explicit. It is the outward manifestation that is important and should appeal to others. We are also creating champions and there is much to cherish in what has been achieved," she said.

The conference will be the biggest ever held in the FE world, and also one of the biggest in education. More than 600 people are expected to attend from all over the UK, including Northern Ireland. There will be guests from New Zealand, South Africa and from Illinois and Washington in the United States.

More than 60 speakers will attend and there are 36 seminars. These include workshops on lifetime learning, the role of librarians, learning technology in colleges, campaigning, designing and financing buildings, the quality of FE, and how to manage innovation.

The highlight of the conference is expected to be the address by Trevor McDonald, the ITN presenter of News at Ten and the chair of the Better English Campaign, who will speak on "Language and Power".

The BBC will be represented by Peter Day, the economics correspondent of Radio 4, who will speak on "Mass customisation in education and training".

Politically, there will be no escape; James Paice, the minister for further education, David Blunkett, the Labour Party shadow education spokesman, and Don Foster, the education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, will all be making major speeches.

Notebooks will be out for the two other main speakers. One is Roger Ward, the chief executive of the new Association of Colleges. Major splits from the new organisation, created from the merger between the former Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers Forum, are unlikely, although Mr Ward needs to win round colleges still not especially happy with his style. He also needs to persuade old and new to continue to pay their subscriptions (for some a hefty hike) and parade a brand-new, slim and glistening structure in which all can work.

The other new boy is David Melville, who recently replaced Sir William Stubbs as the chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council in England. It is his first real public outing and he will need to win the colleges' support (post-budget, of course) during a very trying time. He should expect difficult times on funding, the funding methodology, convergence and . . . well anything about funding of colleges andor students. And Bill Stubbs always made particularly good speeches.

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