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Further education works for its market

Ken Neades explains to a former colleague why the sector is a success and why he still has a job.

Two weeks after the publication of this article I will celebrate 20 years in further education. On reflection, there have been times when I wondered if I would sustain a career in a sector which has continually undergone dramatic change.

On my first day at work in a small college on the outskirts of Glasgow, the staffroom cynic greeted me with the reassuring aside of "Don't give up your Saturday job, son, this place will be closed next year!" (I worked part-time in a tailor's shop and had sold him a suit the previous week.) Over the years such free and unsolicited guidance has been proffered to me by a series of prophets of doom, yet I am still in an area of education which has demonstrated not only a remarkable resilience but also that it is a cornerstone of Scotland's broad-based education system.

Now, I know that my erstwhile colleague is an avid reader of the TES Scotland for snippets of impending Armageddon. He is still in FE - as a sector manager no less - and will be chortling, When I describe responsiveness and flexibility as key aspects of the continued success of further education.

In 1976 colleges catered for a very limited market, providing vocational education predominately to 16-to-19 year olds on day release courses. Adults featured in insignificant numbers, notably in academic studies and in the then emerging TOPs courses. In my college, full-time students were unheard of. Guidance was available, free of charge, from the janitor or from a charming lady, the "Women's Adviser" who enjoyed class remission for dispensing aspirins and barring men from her door.

Current Scottish Office statistics paint a dramatically different picture which illustrates that further education has responded very effectively to a dramatically changing economic environment by providing a comprehensive portfolio of vocational courses.

From 198889 the number of students undertaking vocational further education in Scotland has hovered around the 200,000 mark. In crude terms, in the ten years to the millennium, two million students will have been through 43 colleges and three local authority funded colleges.

In 199495, 35 per cent of students were in the 16 to 19-year-old age-group whilst a staggering 46 per cent were over the age of 25. Of the total 200, 000, more than 25 per cent entered further education with no formal qualifications.

In the past our place in education was catering for youngsters straight out of school and training for a career. Many of them had not experienced academic success. That market still exists. However, another significant market is now adults, both in and out of employment who see FEas a route to success.

Remember, further education is demand led. Its survival is dependant upon responding to the needs of its clients - students who in the main are seeking highly-regarded and relevant vocational qualifications which equip them for the world of work.

Student surveys consistently indicate that the major reason for attending further education is to enhance career prospects.

Responsiveness comes in other forms as well. The portfolio of courses on offer is far too extensive to describe here. It would be fair to say that courses are available somewhere in Scotland in virtually all vocational areas many of which allow entry and progression from non advanced to HNC and HND. Defined exit points which allow entry to the world of work exist at all levels. Hidden in the figure of 200,000 students are those who experience success and progress to another level. Many of Scotland's further education students are now using their qualifications to enter degree courses where they continue to experience success.

To encourage people in all age groups to partake, further education has had to adapt and become more flexible in the ways in which it allows access to courses. Benchmark SCE passes continue to serve their purposes for the school-leaver, but we have increasingly recognised that for the adult returner, life experiences are equally valid.

The highly innovative Scottish Wider Access Programme helped pave the way to recognising the latent potential of the over 21s who had no formal qualifications.

Flexible entry requirements are supported by flexible learning arrangements. Despite the Scottish Office capping the numbers entering advanced courses, the numbers on full-time courses continue to exceed the 35,000 mark. The balance is made up of part-time provision delivered in imaginative ways which allow learners to take classes around the other demands on their time.

Course modularisation is allowing people to learn at times which suit them. This is often in short bursts of 1213 weeks of three hours which build up over a period of time into clusters of modules and units. Increasingly, colleges are opening flexible learning centres where the time and pace of study is determined by the learner. Colleges are also taking learning into deprived communities where notions of education being synonymous with success are unheard of.

For many adults full-time study is impractical and unrealistic. On a non-advanced course, a single person is expected to survive on Pounds 64. 35 at least Pounds 30 of which will be gobbled up in rent, leaving Pounds 34. 35. The response is the growth of fee-waiver schemes for those on low incomes which allow people to attend college and continue to claim benefits.

A broad menu of opportunities, flexible entry and exit points, routes to the world of work and higher education, flexible patterns of delivery, bursaries, grants and fee waivers are some of the hallmarks of successful further education. No surprise then, given the complexity of this responsive system, that sophisticated guidance services are also in place to encourage and guide a diverse student population into and through its portals.

A last word must be directed to my long-suffering colleague from the past who is secretly hoping for early retirement with a substantial enhancement to his pension.

"Tough, buddy! I've seen your recruitment, retention and success ratios for last year. They suggest that you will be around for some time yet."

Ken Neades is head of student services at Dundee College.

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