EDUCATION is a collective effort that cannot be left to market forces alone. While a political consensus has emerged in favour of decentralisation, based on organisational autonomy and effective participation of local stakeholders, the state retains key responsibilities - including the coherence of the system as a whole and articulating a vision of learning through life. In this context it is no surprise that "partnership" has emerged as the modern mantra.
The further education sector has not been slow to take a lead from the Labour Government which believes that partnership is central to the "Third Way" at the heart of Labour's vision. Colleges and national organisations are all competing for the best partners for a vast array of projects, programmes and funding.
But partnership has moved up several gears. Six key national organisations - the Association of Colleges, the Association of Principals of Colleges, the Further Education Development Agency, the Further Education Funding Council, the Local Government Association and the Training and Enterprise National Council have joined together to promote widening participation and lifelong learning.
The partners say they are committed to raising standards and levels of achievement for all. They have promised to provide regular feedback to ministers and have made a commitment to improving quality in education and training and to encourage a broader curriculum.
The partners in the organisation represent education, training and government. This partnership has the potential to be different from many of the collaborative agreements currently offered. As well as a varied representation, it includes individual organisations which already have national clout - bringing them together has resulted in a lobby that cannot be ignored.
David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has already expressed his commitment to this partnership and is enthusiastic about the impact it is set to have. I, too, think that this is a valuable opportunity for the sector to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other key influences to ensure learners get the best out of new policies.
Above all, this new collaborative working agreement is an opportunity for FE to become part of a powerful national lobby for inclusiveness, quality education and training for all. To speak with one national voice the organisations need to leave their historical competitiveness behind.
In recent months FE has been offered a better deal by pioneering changes in educational policy. Through demonstrating that its members can work together with common aims, the partnership will help the sector to remain central to the push towards an education system which is inclusive.
However, there are some important considerations which the "Big Six" need to take on board to make their collaborative work successful.
The partnership is sup-ported by the Department for Education and Employment. Each organisation has its own business and philosophical aims, standards and working practices. These are basic organisational interests and can cause conflict.
This means that each partner must respect the aims of the others in the group. They need to understand that individuals will inevitably represent their own organisation first and foremost, and only secondly the collaborative group. Decisions made by the group may cause conflicts of interest.
All members must understand this and not allow it to overshadow the important aims and objectives of the partnership.
A preoccupation with partnerships can breed cynicism, especially when made a mandatory requirement for competitive bids for scarce resources. Some partnerships could be described as "mutual loathing suppressed for cash", and if you have even been on holiday with good friends you will know that good intentions often fail in the face enforced intimacy.
Nevertheless, partnership has great potential to be a profitable mantra for the FE sector; handled in the right way collaborative agreements can bring together professionals with a vast amount of valuable experience, improve the profile of FE and get tangible, otherwise unobtainable, results.
This alliance does offer FE an historic opportunity to fulfil its key role in post compulsory education and at a time when colleges are at last developing a more coherent national voice. But results will need hard work, sustained commitment and highly developed political skills. Partnerships are never a quick fix.
Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College, will take over as chief executive of FEDA in September, and is writing in a personal capacity.