High quality, cost effective and proud

Further education has many roles to play. This makes it difficult to define and hard for outsiders to get a handle on. The result, I am sorry to say, is that the sector is frequently ignored and, when it isn't, it causes impatience in those forced to notice it. Not for nothing is it often called the Cinderella of education.

It would be churlish to call Margaret Hodge, chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, an ugly sister but, in a recent article, she does sound a bit tetchy when she exhorts us to define our role more clearly. She accuses us of competing on a broad front, with schools, training bodies and higher education institutions, and I'm not sure whether she is more annoyed about the broad front or about the competition.

Yes, we do offer a sixth-form education; yes, we do offer training; yes, we do offer higher education. All these are part of what further education does, though not always in the same institutions. It is something to be proud of, surely, that after the compulsory period of education a person may find all the training and education he or she may want in one sector.

Schools are for compulsory education - though confusingly some of them are in the post-compulsory business too - and further education is for post-compulsory education and training. Universities are for a small part of the post-compulsory period only.

That gives us a broad brief for a very large number of people. It really is for others to decide how important this makes the sector; do they want to emphasise what is on offer to the majority or to the minority?

If the answer is that the majority is of paramount importance, if only because there is so much of it, the question of quality is often raised. Schools, especially independent schools, have better A-level results, it is argued. In our local post-16 booklet, a leading independent school explains that entrants to the sixth form should have eight good grades at GCSE with A grades in the subjects they want to study at A-level.

All I can say is that they should be ashamed of themselves if they don't have better results than those of us who give a chance of success to students with four Cs at GCSE. So I'm not going to apologise for my 91 per cent A-level pass rate, nor for the 71 per cent of students who gained a C or above in their English GCSE last year, all of them having failed the year before.

That's because another thing we're about is giving people a second chance. If you had to leave school earlier than you wanted and can only now do something about it, join a college. If you had a period of school refusal and missed out on crucial input, join a college. If you thought going out to work would be best for you, and now think you were wrong, join a college. If you're going to need longer to achieve than the usual time allocated, we have the flexibility to allow you to do so. And if you are a high achiever at 16, come to college and meet the others who aren't.

We do have to compete with other institutions; that's the way we are set up. Most of us aren't against all school sixth forms. Some students need continuity and the security of a small establishment. If the student would fall by the wayside in my college and would not do so at school, he or she is better off at school.

There's a place for private training providers, as well as for universities. But when one is assessing the effectiveness of different establishments, one really must compare like with like as accurately as possible. All these establishments are differently funded, differently inspected and differently audited. Further education is tightly funded, inspected and audited, and is then compared with others on their criteria rather than its own. What does this tell anyone except what they may have wanted to hear in the first place?

I'd like to define the role of further education. It is to offer good-quality, cost-effective education and training to everyone who is over 16, especially - but not exclusively - to those who are not wanted by schools, other training bodies and higher education institutions.

What we have to add to our role is that we must shout about our successes, and get our students and alumni to shout too. They needn't accept the judgment of institutions that didn't want them; they should praise aloud the colleges which took them in, asked them what they wanted, and gave it to them.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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