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Judged and found wanting

As Tony Blair prepares to step down after 10 years, how has his government performed in further education?

We present the most important assessment available - yours.

Of those who responded to our survey, 55 per cent were teaching staff. We also heard from senior college managers, workbased learning tutors and librarians as well as private-sector staff.

The average rating was 4 out of 10.Joseph Lee reports

Many staff in further education have tak-en our survey as an opportunity to highlight a decade of funding increases as the most important development of the Blair era.

Under the Conservatives, colleges saw their budgets cut by 1 per cent a year for four years in the name of efficiency. Since 1997, funding for FE has risen by almost 50 per cent.

As one college governor put it: "They have aimed to increase funding year on year, which was not previously the case." Others put it more mildly:

"They relieved, very slightly, the punitive financial pressures which were being imposed on colleges."

Improvements in buildings are the main way in which the investment has been noticed by staff. While lecturers still complain about the lack of progress on their pay and of cuts to courses which are no longer a priority, they are aware of the improvements in the facilities around them - including more money for technology - and credit ministers with it.

Some of the Government's key strategies, such as Skills for Life, the programme aiming to improve basic skills, were considered a success by many FE staff in the survey.

"The Government has raised the profile of FE as a credible and valid option to continue learning," one lecturer at a general FE college said. "It has put a lot of investment into raising the basic skills of students and I believe this will have long-term benefits for employers and businesses in this country."

Putting in place a coherent strategy for teenagers from 14 to 19, with vocational learning an option from the start, was welcome but long overdue, staff said.

"This will change learning in this country for the next century," one lecturer said.

Even the controversial introduction of under-16s into colleges drew support from some, although others have named it as one of the biggest mistakes since 1997.

Lecturers also praised the Government for widening access and the introduction of the pound;30-a-week education maintenance allowances, intended to encourage students from poorer families to stay in education.

Several respondents said the most important success was in raising the profile of FE.

A lecturer at a West Country college said: "They have gene-rated a discussion in the media about the importance of vocational skills."

It is a sign that the recent focus on skills, following Lord Leitch's report which identified FE as crucial for the nation's future prosperity, has been appreciated by some of those working in the system.

"They stopped it going down the pan completely," as one Kent lecturer put it.

Grudging respect seems to be the best Mr Blair can expect from pessimistic staff in FE as he leaves next week. "Slightly better than the Tories," was the verdict.

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