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College doles out credit;FE Focus;Lifelong learning

Social inclusion is now a buzzword. But the Open College Network was on message first, says new chair Sally Dicketts. Ian Nash reports

SALLY DICKETTS has top jobs in two colleges.

The day job, which pays her salary, is as principal of Milton Keynes College - a post-modernist's dream with 7,000 students.

The other is equally challenging, but it pays nothing at all, even though it involves 500,000 students on a dispersed "campus" of almost one million square miles. It's Dicketts' job as the new chair of trustees for the National Open College Network, arguably the UK's fastest-growing and least-recognised institution.

While Milton Keynes commands an annual budget of around pound;8 million, the NOCN has a central fund of pound;7.3m and eight staff. It survives on charges for accrediting courses, and on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers who, like Sally, have full-time jobs in colleges and industry.

In the 1980s, tutors from colleges, industry and voluntary organisations were designing short courses to meet individual student needs. But it was difficult to get recognised accreditation. The networks grew to provide this.

The aim was to boost employability and foster social inclusion through community-based short courses and development projects. Getting under-achievers and socially-excluded minorities back to college and into work has been the prime aim of the networks for more than a decade.The University for Industry has the same mission, but Sally Dicketts says that "for the Government to achieve its goals of widening participation and lifelong learning, it needs the open college networks".

Dicketts had already debated the merits of final exams versus continual assessment in the 1970s, first as a new teacher in Wales and later as FE lecturer and manager within the Inner London Education Authority.

"In London, there was already open access and I learned to design a curriculum to meet individual needs rather than tinkering and making peripheral changes to existing programmes," she says. She moved to Milton Keynes, where she progressed from assistant to deputy principal, with a short break for the birth of her daughter. There she met like-minded enthusiasts through the burgeoning network.

The networks did not find it easy in the early years. First, the denigration of continual assessment, short courses and modular studies, not least by central government, sent a clear message to adults alienated by earlier education - there was no second chance in life, no return to learn. Things grew worse under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which split academic and vocational studies and halted funding for non-examined courses. But the Open College Network grew. Short courses, taster programmes and college induction courses were grouped together, accredited and assessed. Further Education Funding Council money flowed in. "There was some criticism, people questioned the use of such funds," says Dicketts. "But we had clear evidence that this provides the key that switches returners on for bigger things."

A spectacular example of this is the Priory primary school which served a council estate in an area of high unemployment in Dudley. The headteacher of the then under-achieving school had the foresight to recruit parents to assist with learning schemes such as reading support and helping in the library.

Parents and other adults not only succeeded in helping to raise standards but they caught the lifelong learning bug themselves. Considerable success followed with the support of the local further education colleges and, within three years, previously virtually-illiterate parents were on university courses.

In 1997, they were the first primary to win a National Training Award - the first of many - and to become a fully-fledged community education centre.

The national network, created in the late 1980s, is the most successful stepping stone by which adults return to learn. The more successful it is, the more publicity it gains for the likes of Edexcel, RSA and City amp; Guilds.

However, as more flexibility is demanded to meet the needs of a wider range of student abilities, big exam boards are running into problems breaking huge centralised programmes into smaller units with local credibility. They are increasingly looking to the open college networks for help.

"We had already identified the problems students have with centrally-driven courses," says Dicketts. "I was critical of the shift from Business and Technology Education Council courses to general national vocational qualifications for the same reasons." The NOCN has 220 awards on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's approved list. It also has partnerships with the big awarding bodies - Edexcel, RSA and City amp; Guilds - for whom it accredits programmes in colleges and the workplace.

There are moves, however, to give the NOCN a bigger role. With the whole national framework for post-16 qualifications under review, talks are under way with QCA to grant it status as a national awarding body issuing new-style credit-based qualifications for projects which would otherwise fall outside the framework.While there is agreement with the Government's advisers to include NOCN credits towards national targets for education and training, it is limited (see below).

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