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FEfocus Editorial - 'Cinderella sector' suited to austerity

The Cinderella sector. Long has the label suited the style that many in FE have sought for themselves. A bit like a sackcloth that shares its sartorial philosophy with medieval hair-shirts. Massively unpleasant to sport and hugely unflattering - yet for those that choose them, somehow comforting. It's almost like the lack of glamour makes the calling of the "forgotten sector" all the more worthy.

It's not even as if this culture of self-denigration garners much publicity. Mainstream newspapers ignore FE as if it wasn't there - many more headlines are generated about top public schools than top colleges. They even turn a blind eye to the fact that many institutions in this sector achieve better results than their cousins in schools.

Evidence in this week's FE Focus will only prove to be grist for the many who take comfort from their perception of FE's place in the world; those who enjoy being seen as the education's downtrodden and yet "get on with it". The pay offer (page 29) for FE teachers and lecturers is derisory - and leaves the differential with their colleagues in the school sector as stark as ever (circa pound;2k per year for a foot soldier). In addition, the warning about what the HE fees hike might do to teacher supply in FE is all too real. As James Noble-Rogers of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers reminds us (page 31), it is difficult enough to persuade people to leave successful careers to retrain as FE lecturers and it will only become harder once they are saddled with an annual debt of pound;9,000.

Throw in the chronic state of general funding in the sector and it is fair to say that times are as tough as they have been for a generation.

And yet. There are enormous opportunities for colleges in the choppy waters of education.

Take, for example, funding. Colleges have long been independent. They have long been used to having to make ends meet. They have long been financially innovative. Many have long been entrepreneurial and expansive.

As such they are in a much better position to deal with tight budgets and funding freezes than those in mainstream schools. And, no doubt, many of those smoking pipes in dreaming spires, too. Watch out for a significant expansion of FE degree-level provision.

Then, of course, there is the Government's wholesale reorganisation of the schools system in England, which colleges are already sniffing around with an expansionist look in their eyes. Indeed, some are already sponsoring academies, while at least one has taken over an independent prep school with a view to converting it into a free school.

At one stage when the Conservatives were in opposition, before the full scale of the public-sector funding crisis was apparent, Tory policy wonks speculated that once their educational revolution was complete, most areas would feature a university as the central hub, controlling - or overseeing - a schools and colleges system that revolves around it. Instead, due to the cunningness of colleges and the lack of financial canniness of the rest of the education sector, there is the very real possibility that at the centre will be the local general FE college.

The time, then, for sackcloth, Cinderella and navel-gazing is over. One more push and a hugely unlikely victory could be FE's. It would be nice if someone could sort out the pay differential first, though.

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