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Hold fast to autonomy that drives success

At last, after weeks of gloom about funding, some well-deserved good news for further education with proof that it is outperforming against almost all targets (page 33).

This should cheer those who work in the sector and whose hard graft has ensured the success evinced in the statistics, which were collated by the Further Education Reputation Strategy Group.

On one level, these figures tend to entrench further education's reputation as the Cinderella sector. Put another way, FE has outperformed schools and universities - and with fewer resources.

So is this a bitter-sweet achievement? If, year after year, further education continues to deliver the goods at reasonable cost, where is the incentive for government, particularly these days, to give it more money?

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says the sector is honed, lean and agile after years of responding to challenges. Does this mean further education has adapted to its low-cost, get-on-with- the-job environment?

Yes it has, and maybe this is no bad thing. Rather than constantly seeking comparison with schools or universities, further education should take pride and promote the educational model it has built. It is in some respects an exemplar for the rest of the education system in the UK: effortlessly efficient, hugely effective and highly adaptable.

Colleges used their post-incorporation freedom from local authority control to diversify and improve learner opportunities.

Over the same 16 years, schools have suffered endless brickbats and have, in response, developed an increasingly muscular belligerence, as reports of this week's teaching union conferences reveal.

And since 1993, universities have enjoyed something of a golden age, having gained financial reward through top-up fees and favour with a Labour administration willing to pump billions into research.

Further education may, at times, feel aggrieved at its treatment compared to its sister sectors, but its steady application and remarkable successes have won it respect and friends among politicians, if not yet their commitment to greater spending.

The sector awaits next week's Budget for some easing of its financial difficulties. Further education rightly hopes that its outstanding performance against targets, combined with its centrality to economic recovery, will persuade the Chancellor to loosen the purse strings.

But perhaps greater dangers lurk in the pending government changes that will bring colleges closer to the local authorities they escaped in 1993.

Any resulting reduction in the autonomy that has underpinned the further education successes celebrated this week would be a retrograde and damaging step.

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