THE expectation that Scotland's further education colleges should support economic development with work-related skills and learning is well-documented. Creating lifelong learning of world quality that underpins a knowledge-driven economy is an explicit aim of Scottish Executive policy guidance to the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.
Yet, this emphasis does not predominate within policy statements on FE. Ministers also expect colleges to deliver on a wide range of other fronts - from adult literacy to higher education. In response to these diverse expectations, colleges have attempted to cater for a wide range of interests and needs among learners, employers and local communities, leading to perceptions of duplication and overlap.
The option of having fewer colleges has been raised, along with attendant policies emerging on institutional collaboration and the rationalisation of provision. But before embarking on change, it is essential that policy-makers are clear about what they want from the sector and from each college. There is not yet an explicit view about the overriding purpose of FE in Scotland. Notwithstanding colleges' other important roles, a key strength of FE is its ability to deliver work-related learning and skills to meet employer and employee needs.
Moreover, there seems to be little evidence, so far, of practical policy options that build on the distinctive work-related strengths of individual colleges. In other words, vocational specialisation within each of the existing 46 Scottish colleges might offer a way forward that is more in tune with Scottish economic needs.
In England, the desire to articulate the distinctive contribution of FE to work-related learning and skills has been at the heart of the decision to create Centres of Vocational Excellence (COVEs). There might be considerable merit in Scottish ministers articulating a similarly distinctive role. Creating COVEs could improve the focus, coherence and quality of work-related learning and skills strategies, benefiting the economy and Scotland's lifelong learning system alike. COVEs have emerged as a flagship policy for FE in England over the past year.
The initiative was launched in the run-up to the creation of the integrated post-16 learning and skills sector in England, a time when many FE colleges felt unsure about their place in the new, much larger sector. A primary aim of the policy is to improve colleges' ability to adapt to, and deliver, the national, sectoral, regional and local skills needs of industry and business. Founded on the twin principles of specialisation and excellence, colleges may seek to become COVEs in subject areas in which they have proven strengths and records of delivering high quality provision. The focus is on delivering provision at, and leading up to, NVQ level 3; on providing pathways for progression into higher levels; and on creative approaches to tackling skills needs for those new to the industry or wishing to upgrade or retrain. Sixteen pathfinders are leading the way and it is expected that half of England's FE colleges should become COVEs by 2004.
While many colleges across Scotland already have good relationships with business, industry and with industrial sector bodies, including emerging growth industries such as biotechnology and micro-electronics, the creation of COVEs could make these links more widespread across other industrial sectors. A key characteristic of COVEs is access to industry standard equipment and be able to instruct on leading-edge industrial techniques.
FE colleges already have well-established articulation links with a number of Scottish universities, but COVE policies could help improve the status and coherence of progression routes into higher level vocational learning. COVEs could also make the new all-age modern apprenticeships more attractive through their delivery in specialist facilities with opportunities for further, subdegree level study.
FE colleges can ensure that technicians are trained to use innovative industrial processes and techniques. COVEs could encourage the transfer of knowledge from applied university research on new processes and techniques into work-related learning, benefiting employees and, ultimately, industry and business.
hile Scotland does not have an integrated post-16 sector, and thus the same need to forge a clear identity for FE, there is often a feeling that colleges are simply another training provider, when their potential is really much greater. There is an important geographical focus within Scottish FE policy on meeting local needs, but this initiative need not conflict with it. COVEs should deliver excellence for local industries as well as national sectoral needs. Local employers and learner views would be important to decisions on what a college's specialism or specialisms should be.
There is really no reason why all Scottish FE colleges shouldn't become COVEs in at least one subject specialism, which might make decisions about the shape of the sector easier to accept. Unless we are clear about what FE should do, there is a danger that colleges will continue to be stretched in too many directions at once.
Creating centres of vocational excellence in pursuit of skills for employment and employability would also be a practical demonstration of the value of having, uniquely within the UK, a joint ministry for enterprise and lifelong learning.
Jane Denholm and Deirdre Macleod are partners in Critical Thinking, a public policy practice which specialises in education and training matters.