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Go boldly into newage of learning;FE Focus

Here the politicians and civil servants who play a key part in further education today outline their vision of the colleges of tomorrow

I am very glad to be able to contribute to this issue celebrating the fifth anniversary of the incorporation of the further education sector.

In the past five years a great deal has happened, much of it of undoubted benefit. Colleges have responded dynamically and flexibly to learning demands, particularly at the intermediate qualifications level.

There are 4 million students, 30 per cent up since incorporation. Six out of 10 16 and 17-year-olds in full-time education are in FE colleges. Three in 10 national vocational qualifications awarded in Britain - and the majority of other vocational qualifications - are achieved in FE. Colleges are reaching out to many who have traditionally not participated, and to those who have not succeeded in the past.

FE has a critical role in promoting social inclusion, increasing employability and meeting skills shortages. Helena Kennedy's powerful vision for widening participation is being fulfilled in exciting ways.

We have started in advance of the comprehensive spending review by giving colleges more than pound;100 million mainly towards widening participation.

Government lifelong learning policies will secure major advances. The University for Industry will form the hub of a learning network. Colleges, with their strong and growing reputation for harnessing information technology and communications, will be at the forefront, alongside their educational and industrial partners.

Individual Learning Accounts will encourage new learners to take the courses they want where they want them. ILAs will mark a partnership, with Government, employers and individuals sharing investment in education and training.

Many colleges are already reaching new learners. Some have adapted buses as mobile classrooms, going out to the community, the workplace, village halls and women's centres. Others work with training and enterprise councils, providing access to computers with the extra equipment needed to use distance-learning packages. They provide exciting opportunities for for small companies and for disabled learners who are housebound.

Another college has free childcare placements with social services for students taking basic skills courses. The nursery is near the classroom, and the students' courses can be imaginatively linked to child development.

These are just some of the benefits from incorporation. But freedoms must be balanced by responsibilities. The sector is too vital for us to overlook the few cases damaging its image - where senior managers' conduct has fallen below the high standards we expect. We will not allow these to jeopardise public confidence in FE. The Government recently published proposed changes to the framework for college governing bodies. We shall secure improvements to accountability and openness, and encourage closer links with local communities. A code of conduct and register of interests at each college will be available for public inspection.

We must secure higher standards in those few colleges with long-standing problems of poor achievement and low retention rates. Rigorous measures to drive up quality are in The Learning Age Green Paper.

Good teaching is essential to college success. We want all new lecturers and tutors to have appropriate initial teacher training qualifications. The National Training Organisation will provide the framework and encourage continuing professional development.

We also expect colleges to set annual targets to improve retention and achievement and to publish results. We shall look for first-rate college management, analogous to the best in business practice.

Improved standards, better governance and accountability arrangements will encourage the development of strong partnerships to concentrate on efficient learning strategies. This Government has always promoted collaboration.

So on the basis of the highest possible standards, and in practical and effective collaboration with partners, it is an ideal time for colleges to plan for the new millennium. You are, I believe, on the verge of a new learning age, one which will echo the proud tradition of modern FE. One hundred years ago, adult learning was flourishing through evening classes, public lectures, scientific societies and specialist libraries.

For the new century, we want to take the great principles of that historic culture and make them fit the needs of a modern learning nation. The programme for action I have described shows that the Government has very high expectations.

Baroness Blackstone is the minister for further and higher education

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