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How to become a skills superpower

Bryan Davies Labour further and higher education spokesman. Post-Cold War, the arms race has given way to a skills race. It is a less certain, more competitive world. If there is a new axis upon which it revolves, it is learning. Only countries which invest in the knowledge base of their economies can survive and prosper.

FE colleges are at the heart of educating and training our people. They teach more students than school sixth forms and universities combined. FE is a truly comprehensive and inclusive sector.

But it can only flourish if its importance is properly recognised. Last year's Budget cuts have bitten deep into the ability of colleges to innovate and respond to new demands. Job losses have mounted and capital developments have stalled. The situation will deteriorate if short-term interests of the Conservative party are put before investing in the long-term prosperity of the country. For this reason, the formation of the new Association of Colleges is timely. It is an important vehicle for FE to have its voice heard in the media, political arena and wider public domain.

Tony Blair has pledged that over the course of a parliament, we will have increased the proportion of our national income spent on education. Indeed, we have proposed a specific flow of resources into employment and FE:our windfall levy on the excessive profits on the privatised utilities will generate resources for a major employment and education programme for long-term unemployed 18 to 25-year-olds.

Strategic managers in FE should prepare themselves for this programme because colleges are destined to play a significant role in it. Young people who have been out of work for more than six months will be offered four options, including full-time education or work with approved education and training.

In addition, we will convert child benefit for 16 to 19-year-olds - which is not universal and does not reach many of those who most need support - into education attendance allowances. Shifting this public spending onto a new basis geared to education achievement will help secure increased participation in full-time tertiary education and boost the status and performance of the work-based route. Public action will be backed up by a new statutory obligation on employers to provide day release to 16 to 18-year-olds who have not reached national vocational qualification level 2.

Tertiary participation is stratified by class, gender and regional inequalities. Our national programmes will be underpinned by strategies aimed at disaffected and disadvantaged young people. Across the country, there are numerous examples of local agencies and education providers working to reintegrate pupils with records of non-attendance and exclusion into mainstream education. This practice must be spread and FE colleges can play their part by offering learning in challenging environments.

We will also offer avenues for adults to return to learning. The 16-hour rule (the restriction on the hours the unemployed can study without losing benefits) will be relaxed for those who have been out of work for a year. Individual learning accounts will be available for employee training, initially targeted at one million people from key groups, and funded through redirected training and enterprise council resources and better use of European monies. We will boost the Investors in People programme and protect and strengthen local authority adult education.

These measures will only be successful if schools, colleges and other providers operate within a secure strategic framework. Theframework must combine the flexibility necessary for dynamism with the partnership required for coherent and cost-effective provision for all learners. We must be imaginative and pragmatic, building from what is best in the current system, while tackling its deficiencies. Co-operation between colleges, training and enterprise councils, local authorities and, where appropriate, HE should take place within local lifelong learning forums. The governance of colleges and TECs should be made more representative of the full range of stakeholders in the community and the regional committees of the FEFC should be democratised and strengthened.

Further education is a key public service. Excessive competition and division, evidenced by those parts of the current Education Bill which allow grant-maintained schools to open sixth forms without consultation and central approval, damages curriculum co-ordination, fragments provision and student progression routes and deploys resources inefficiently.

The way forward lies in sensible partnership. We do have the potential to become a skills superpower in the coming decades. But we will not get there with a divided and downsized further education system.

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