ALL THOSE involved in the Association of Colleges are delighted that the Government has declared its commitment to education and prioritised the central role of further education. Our sector is essential to the achievement of the Government's declared agenda of social inclusion and economic regeneration through policy developments such as lifelong learning, New Deal and the University for Industry.
FE has worked tremendously hard for its students in the past five years. According to the chief inspector's report for 1997-98, 99 per cent of teaching in the sector is satisfactory, good or outstanding. According to the same report, 94 per cent of management grades come within the same categories.
Yet, it must remain top of our agenda that we continue to improve the offer we make to an ever wider range of students. We must build on the great expertise in the sector to ensure that the learning environments we offer accommodate every learner, through approaches such as inclusive learning.
We shall be under rightful pressure to continue to increase retention and achievement rates, and to develop a self-critical culture, leading to a cycle of continuous improvement. That means we need also to embrace what the FE National Training Organisation will bring to the sector over the coming years.
But we now require a major review of the financing of the sector. Further funds for initiatives are always gratefully received and we welcomed the Secretary of State's promised Pounds 255 million from the comprehensive spending review. But we still face the effects of five years of efficiency savings. Colleges have had to manage a reduction of 26 per cent in funding, in real terms. Is there any wonder that in 1997-98, 21 per cent of colleges were found to be in "weak financial circumstances", and that 60 per cent are trading at a deficit?
We must also ensure a proper method of financing our students. While welcoming pilots, we need to remember that five years ago, the value of local authority administered funds was Pounds 170m. Given inflation and our growth, the Lane Group's call for Pounds 400m for FE student support, compared with the Pounds 2 billion for HE students, seems modest. The urgency of this issue cannot be denied, for we run the risk of another generation becoming disaffected, deskilled and disenfranchised.
There are also arguments to be made on college accountability and governance. I believe that the accreditation of colleges is urgent as they are well-placed to be more self-regulating. However, a clear description of the new roles and responsibilities placed on colleges achieving such status has yet to be seen. An explanation is now due.
On governance, as we await the outcome of the Government's consultation paper, Accountability in Further Education, I hope that the outstanding service given by thousands of professional and highly supportive governors is not cast aside.
Finally, the members of the association have demonstrated their abilities and commitment to the wide-ranging communities they serve. The implementation of the regional development agencies gives a new dimension to that service. The voice of further education must be strongly heard and understood in the RDA councils and its sub-regional groupings.
We hope that all our key partners will see their responsibilities to FE as supporting and assisting us in continuing to provide a professional, high quality and inclusive service for the millions of learners we serve.