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Education, education and what about the colleges?;Commentary;FE Focus;Opinion

The Labour party has no doubt been celebrating its excellent inspection grades. And rightly so. Whether it's range and responsiveness, management or staffing, they have certainly done well. Programme areas look pretty good, too, at least in general outline. But now comes the tricky bit: converting all those fine words into the boring small print of policy.

Whether Gillian Shephard and her conservative predecessors found it too tricky or too boring, their memoirs will eventually tell us; but they could not bring themselves to develop policies about post-compulsory education. We can all see that bold and radical thinking is going to be Tony Blair's style - witness the unexpected, mould-breaking decision in the first days of office to use first names in Cabinet meetings. No prisoner of the past he.

Policies start with definitions, so how about a suitable form of words for post-compulsory education itself? Will the definition include school sixth forms or leave them out? Where will higher education fit in? One sector, one funding regime, one name might be interesting. What we can't put up with any longer are two fully "policied" sectors in schools and universities with a policy-free market for the rest.

Do we, by which I mean those of us who work in colleges, know what our colleges are for? Or, indeed, who they are for? We could all start a mental check-off, listing aims and objectives quoted in our glossy brochures and enumerating the sorts of students with whom we deal. But each list would be different, and all of them would be incomplete. We do what we do because that's what we do.

Without any policy framework to support us, we live in a state of insecurity, and not only can be but have been marginalised in a moment. Remember the assurance about Labour's election priorities? Education, education, education, although not necessarily in that order. The manifesto barely mentioned colleges at all.

Assuming that Uncle David will bring us in from the cold, how is our service to be paid for? As things stand, we are once again stranded somewhere between schools, with their simple so-much-per-head system, and higher education with mandatory awards and government grants.

If I ever have any trouble sleeping, counting the various ways in which we are funded always puts me out like a light. Flexibility, responsiveness, entrepreneurial skills, proposal-writing and the identification of new pots of money are all very well, but they do take an inordinate amount of management time. Perhaps we, or rather our new masters (sorry, Tony, servants), could look at Florida, where community colleges get most of their money from earmarked proceeds of the state lottery.

If we can get our status and our funding regularised, there is a shrieking need for some radical thinking about assessment, certification and accreditation. Supply has vastly outstripped demand because the market mechanism has simply not worked. You can already find more qualifications on our shelves than separate items at a typical out-of-town hypermarket.

We are apparently so obsessed with choice that we want to break these qualifications down into smaller units, each one individually assessed and recorded. All that stops us is the inability of computer software to cope with the necessary extension to the Individual Student Record. Barmy or what? The qualifications industry, like the City of London, seems incapable of regulating itself. Somebody should do it for them.

And what of institutional arrangements? Where does the new government stand on things like diversity and choice on the one hand, and cost-effectiveness and rationality on the other? How does institutional autonomy sit with the new emphasis on collaboration and partnership? Will the lion of the school sixth form lie down with the lamb of the FE college?

If selective grammar schools can be preserved for the nation by parental choice, we can deduce that new Labour either doesn't have a view about the best form of secondary education or is prepared to subordinate that view to the whim of the customer.

Is the same laissez-faire attitude going to hold for colleges? Who are the post-compulsory equivalent of parents? What would a post-compulsory curriculum entitlement look like, and could its availability be guaranteed to all? Without some sort of planning mechanism which could override institutional decisions, it does not seem possible.

Some policy options to fuel the debate would be welcome, particularly if they at least acknowledged the development and impact of new technologies, not just on the learning process but on the nature of an organisation of colleges and relationships between them. If even The Guardian has decided that the Internet is the most significant development in communication since the invention of printing, there must be something in it.

Now that we are to be friends with Europe again, it will be respectable once more to promote international dimensions to learning. It's not just a matter of sending groups of students to gawp at the sights of Brussels, though there's nothing wrong with that, but it should include encouragement for colleges to market their services overseas if they want to do so. Not a policy, perhaps, but what about an alternative to the Queen's Award for Industry, which took the form of a kitemark for colleges that could point to genuine international activity which affected the curriculum as part of a coherent, benchmarked strategy?

In the meantime, we should welcome the University for Industry, another attempt to promote lifelong learning. It clearly needs more thought, and will no doubt get it, but it is already evident that, since the concept seems to centre on raising levels of skill and competence and is directed at the individual, it is not going to be a university and it will not be for industry.

However, since new Labour's education policies were Harmanised, we know that what you call it is less important than what it does.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, Lancashire

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