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Colleges will flourish if leaders put down roots

Foot-and-mouth made me stop and think. When you look at a map of the movement of animals, to market and to slaughter, it is easy to understand how the disease spread so fast.

I recalled my childhood vists to my cousin's farm, when farmers went to the local market and lived their lives alongside their neighbours. This nurtured communal values. Too much movement weakens the links of community. Digging where you stand has a lot to be said for it.

Just before Christmas I spent two days in colleges which have had stable leadership for well over a decade. The benefits were palpable. In Nuneaton, students showed pride in the place; tutors talked with passion about their work, and senior managers debated with gusto how learners' aspirations, and the needs of the community, could be met within funding constraints.

In Accrington, the learners' awards evening demonstrated a college in touch with the full range of communities in its area. Posh frock days always inspire. But this was different. Through creative detective work the college had unlocked defunct grammar-school endowments to reward attendance, improvement, and effort as well as conventional success. It was a spellbinding evening - formal, yet sharing the intimacy of the weekly farmers' market.

If you leave a wood alone, species proliferate. The same is true of well-led institutions. Creativity grows in the spaces made by secure structures. By contrast, too much instability weakens the capacity of learners to shape the system to their needs.

I am in favour of the reforms the Government is introducing. The Learning and Skills Council does provide a chance to create a system where the same kind of work attracts the same level of support - where all the different learning contexts - from workplace to village hall - can share the task of widening participation, raising achievement, and fostering learning culture.

But if that is to happen, we need a period for the new structures to bed down. I am particularly worried about the threat to colleges' work with adult learners, as entitlement is limited to the youngest students and inspection resources are weighted in favour of the same age group.

Multi-purpose colleges, meeting the needs of young people and adults, are the heart of the new system, as of the old. They are certainly the major provider of adult learning opportunities. This is not to decry the achievements of sixth-form colleges, or adult education services, or the value of strengthening vocational education, far from it.

However, without enough commitment to multi-purpose colleges learning for adults will be impoverished. The danger is that general colleges look untidy, and I have a sense they do not always make the best case for themselves. But like "bog-standard" comprehensives we cannot do without them.

This is not a supply-side argument. Of course, we need to stimulate demand, and meet it in new ways. The use of new technologies, and the development of workplace, voluntary and community-based learning are critical.

Even individual learning accounts have a role to play, at least in combination with other measures, like the union learning fund, or work with credit unions. Yet at the heart of a community learning strategy must lie people's palaces of learning - with a rich curriculum, high-quality teaching, learning and learner support and real skills in consulting learners and potential learners alike. Many of those palaces will be colleges.

One last thought for David Blunkett, if, as seems likely, Labour wins the next election. If colleges benefit from stable, confident leadership, so too would education in England.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

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