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The biggest difference for years

John Harwood, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, argues that training reforms may end the vocational and academic divide

Three recent key documents underpin the Government's ambitious education and training reforms. They link together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to form a coherent strategy to improve our economic performance and the health of our society.

The three - the 14-19 policy, the Success for All strategy and the Higher Education White Paper - offer huge opportunities for the sector we broadly call further education. Traditionally lost between the high-profile roles of schools and universities, FE is now fundamental to changes in education to improve the skills of the nation and support the Government's ambitions to transform the economy and society.

First, 14-19 Opportunity and Excellence is the most fundamental part, addressing the huge historic problems of the lack of strength and breadth in the curriculum and the comparative under-achievement and poor level of participation in secondary education from the age of 14 onwards.

The reforms will provide the scope for young people, whatever their aspirations and background, to complete worthwhile study towards higher levels of achievement and employment.

To that end, there are very important concepts highlighted, for example, by Ken Boston, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chief executive, in the TES of February 14. He talks of the need to move on from something we should have left behind light years ago - the vocational and academic divide - by using new terms in the curriculum.

Look at other European countries and ask why so many more people there stay on beyond 16. We have among the worst participation rates in the OECD because in most other countries their education systems offer all young people a relevant curriculum.

In setting out essential changes to 14 to 16 provision, we must build partnerships between schools, FE colleges and beyond, to achieve that, hitherto elusive, breadth and flexibility.

The second document, Success for All, sets out fundamental changes in the way the FE sector works and is funded. There is a very significant increase in the FE budget over three years - pound;1.2 billion - within a framework that rewards, sustains and supports achievement. Opportunities for learning will be reshaped where needed to fit the needs of communities and their economies.

In Success for All, there are four themes. They seek to create more responsive provision and raise quality. Again they interlink like jigsaw puzzle pieces: local responsiveness; putting teaching and learning at the heart of reforms; better leadership and teaching standards and a new framework for quality and success.

The third document, the Higher Education White Paper, linked to the former two, addresses a slightly older age group and looks at how young people can acquire higher levels of specific and general educational attainment.

What is distinctive is the important role given to FE colleges in helping to meet this need. Charles Clarke and Margaret Hodge have both made it clear that much of the extra provision needed to reach the 50 per cent participation in HE target will be through FE colleges.

Most of the new provision over the next 10 years will be from new Foundation Degrees, aimed at the needs of industry and commerce. There will be growing demand for level 4 and 5 (degree and professional) courses which will link into other work the LSC is doing - particularly college and employer-based centres of vocational excellence (COVEs).

I have always said it is difficult to see how COVEs can offer true excellence unless they can take learners to the highest levels of attainment.

We see the pattern of development strengthening through this concerted drive on all three fronts. We will be able to address long-standing challenges in raising educational attainment and widening participation."

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