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Long live the powers to award

You have to hand it to City College Norwich. The news that it has been allowed to award its own qualifications in the finance industry means it has made history - in effect becoming the first university of further education. It will be the first of many FE colleges to win this status under the reforms of the qualifications system.

The national press made much of how the new awarding powers would give rise to the "McQualification" so keenly dismissed by smirking journalists to whom the idea of vocational training may seem rather unpleasant.

But anyone who understood the FE market knew that the changes would give colleges the chance to show their true colours by taking advantage of the chance to define their own standards.

With financial services being a big employer in Norfolk's county town, this move means the college can be more responsive to the development of the workforce on its doorstep.

More colleges will inevitably be given awarding powers, so they will be able to build their own reputations - not just by teaching to someone else's curriculum, but by setting their own standards.

With more than 100 awarding bodies behind the bulk of qualifications gained in colleges, the problems of red tape are well-known, with each qualification creating its own demands for data collection. But this development will do more than cut bureaucracy, a subject on which there has been much talk but very little progress. Allowing colleges to award their own qualifications gives them a clearer identity, each with its own way of meeting students' needs. Giving colleges these powers acknowledges the true nature of FE and the way the public relates to colleges.

The public will never understand the "lifelong learning sector" as a homogenous entity - no matter how often the term is used. The Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) achievements in making sense of the sea of post-16 training providers has mostly been a behind-the-scenes activity.

The LSC - expected to be dissolved as local education authorities and the new Skills Funding Agency take over its funding role - was never the NHS of post-16 education; nor has it pretended to be. And nor - except for City amp; Guilds - have the national awarding bodies been, or pretended to be, household names or consumer-facing brands.

Awarding these powers to colleges, along with more emphasis on self- regulation, recognises what communities have always understood - the importance of the local colleges. Good luck, Norwich. May many more follow you.

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