THE past five years have seen dramatic changes in the further education world. The next five years may entail some even more momentous steps for colleges in the drive to produce a learning society.
So it is not surprising that this autumn's Association of Colleges conference in Harrogate is called Creating A Learning Society. Colleges are key to the Government's agenda for widening participation and lifelong learning and much work has yet to be done to establish how these goals might be achieved.
Speakers at the conference,which is to run from November 24 to 26 and is co-sponsored by The TES, include Education Secretary David Blunkett, Chris Humphries, the chairman of the Government's national skills task force, Alan Wells, the director of the Basic Skills Agency, Ann Wright, chief executive of the University for Industry, and Professor David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.
Helena Kennedy, author of the widening participation report, will also be speaking, as will Sir John Banham, chairman of Kingfisher Plc, Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, and David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman.
The conference is expected to address how the sector can set about helping the 15 million Britons who have no qualifications. It will also ask what FE can contribute to the national skills agenda and to the University for Industry.
Following the comprehensive spending review it was announced in July that FE was to receive an extra Pounds 255m for 1999-2000 but delegates will wait to see if the Education Secretary can give any details of FE's allocation for the years 2000 to 2002.
Jim Scrimshaw, the AOC chairman, said that the extra money was good news for FE but there is still some way to go before the sector is funded well enough to enable it to play its full part in delivering the Government's widening participation and lifelong learning agenda.
He added that there was clearly an issue to be resolved about how to achieve a properly motivated, trained and rewarded workforce in the colleges. There had in recent years been recruitment difficulties especially in information technology subjects. A proper strategy and extra funding would be needed.
He hoped that the AOC and the lecturers' union NATFHE might be on the verge of resolving the long-standing contracts dispute. Negotiators on both sides have reached what he described as "a mutuality" and are now consulting members and colleges on the proposals.
He added that after last year's conference many people felt that the AOC board had not maintained a good dialogue with conference. This year, he said, the board was determined to have a much more open discussion and debate on what had taken place in the past and would take place in future.
It is also hoped that the new AOC chief executive will be appointed before the conference and will be able to address the meeting.
The TES is to run a series of articles on issues which the conference is to address including funding and the future of FE, quality improvement - retention and achievement, staffing and the National Training Organisation, the skills gaps in the economy and regionalisation, and how the sector represents itself to Government.