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Colleges have earned the right to be heard

Colleges will be forgiven for thinking that a friend in need is a friend indeed this week.

All it took for their complaints about the inflexibility of Train to Gain and the devastation done to courses below level one to be heard was for the Government to find itself in the worst economic crisis since the depression. But it does not matter that the decision to relax the rules has only emerged under the twin pressures of recession and the failure of Train to Gain to recruit enough students: more freedom will be good for colleges.

A bold implementation of the suggestions by John Denham, Skills Secretary, could go some way to restoring the independence of adult learners to choose courses that interest them, which was damaged by the overly prescriptive Train to Gain system.

The decision has been welcomed by employers and colleges, with John Cridland, deputy director of the Confederation of British Industry, saying it "was a chance to keep Train to Gain on the rails".

Mr Denham noted the lobbying by colleges on this issue and it is a credit to him that he was able to listen and respond.

It is also a testament to the work of colleges. As this week's Ofsted annual report makes clear, colleges are among the top-performing institutions in education - a remarkable achievement considering they are also involved with some of the hardest-to-reach students.

Colleges have earned the right to be heard through their continued success. As Martin Doel, the Association of Colleges chief executive, said it is "welcome recognition of the maturity of the sector and the trust that its performance merits."

But colleges will also be aware of the dangers of getting what you wish for. On the one hand, it will be important to see if the Government and the Learning and Skills Council can implement the kind of flexibility that is being demanded. But on the other, colleges will now be faced with a further pressure: to make it work now they have got their wish.

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