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FE funding vital;Opinion

It is five years exactly since, under a Conservative government, the further education colleges received their freedom. And, as if by way of celebration, birthday gifts are being showered upon the sector.

Last week, Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget opened the door to an extra pound;310 million for post-16 education and training.

This week, not to be outdone, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett invited colleges, with training and enterprise councils, to bid for pound;90m - ear-marked for the creation of 40 "centres of excellence" for training in communication technologies.

And next week, Mr Blunkett's advisory group for student support will urge the Government to switch pound;600 million away from child benefit towards helping students survive financially while they are in education or training. This radical move would offer subsidised transport and help with basic expenses to every sixth-former and college student in the country.

Two buzzwords underpin all these initiatives - "collaboration" and "partnership". They are part of a jigsaw of policies, criss-crossing conventional government departments, to make lifelong learning a reality - especially for the low-paid and unemployed.

Since they moved out of local authority control five years ago, English and Welsh colleges have carved out a distinctive niche in post-compulsory education and training. Importantly - and perhaps unexpectedly - the public readily understands and, by and large, appreciates their new role.

Evidence for this positive picture has emerged from research based on eight focus groups, carried out for The TES by Lancaster University. More than three-quarters of the people involved in discussing their attitudes to further education colleges had a clear vision of the sector and of its key purpose as the engine of lifelong learning in this country.

A minority was confused about the respective roles of colleges and universities. But most said colleges were doing a good job. Teaching standards were seen as reasonably high, and people felt that the FE sector was genuinely forging closer links with the community.

Before eulogising further, though, we should remember the downside of incorporation: predatory trading to do down neighbouring institutions; lack of openness and accountability; and unacceptably low standards of conduct by a handful of managers. Opening FE up to the market also opened it up to golden opportunities for sleaze.

None of these reservations, however, justifies returning colleges to the local authority fold. The system has moved on - and besides, those never were truly halcyon days. Territorial squabbling started well before incorporation. But collaboration and partnership were not invented by the Labour Government, either. Colleges rightly argue that it was they who took the initiative in devising some of the finest federal partnerships - bringing in universities, schools and training and enterprise councils. Those in Birmingham, East Sussex, Manchester and the Black Country are some of the best examples.

The next five years will see even closer collaboration. This inevitably means that colleges must relinquish some independence - but then many are already doing so.

And ministers must give more too. Baroness Blackstone is strongly hinting - on page IX of this week's FE Focus fifth anniversary special - that there is more to come if post-16 providers do their bit. Let's hold her to that.

Nowhere is the need for extra money more paramount than in the area of student support. Evidence from the focus groups does indicate that, as the New Deal goes national next month, there is simmering discontent among the very low-paid over free courses for the unemployed.

Grants, and possibly loans, must replace the tangle of discretionary awards - which in any case are skewed to a minority of the young and do nothing for adults returning to learn.

The Government should, without doubt, act on the radical recommendations of Mr Blunkett's advisory group. Otherwise, birthday celebrations notwithstanding, those with the greatest need to take part in the lifelong learning revolution could find themselves excluded from the feast.

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