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Look on the bright side of white paper

Snobbery, status and structures dominated the reaction to the 14-19 white paper last week. What this overshadowed is the tremendous opportunity it gives to further education to lead the way in providing better vocational training in schools and colleges. Remember that Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly chose to launch the paper at a college.

Some of this academic-versus-vocational polemic is counter-productive and distracting. The Learning and Skills Council is more concerned about the impact of the reforms on the many learners they will affect.

I deliberately say many, and not all, learners because the white paper contains notable omissions. What are the steps that keep teenagers who struggle to reach level 2 in learning? Are learners who want a true mix of vocational and academic study catered for? Has enough thought been given to progression routes from vocational study into higher education?

There are also questions about how much the proposals will cost and how funding will be allocated.

But the paper requires schools and colleges to work together like never before, and to ensure they follow the needs of learners - not the other way round.

Effective partnership needs planning and hard work. Knowsley, the first area to clinch an outstanding grade for its 14-19 inspection, shows it can be done.

At the time of its last inspection five years ago, Knowsley had much to do.

But excellent collaboration between schools, Knowsley college, work-based learning providers, employers and the LSC has meant participation and achievement have both risen. The LSC is working hard to get such collaboration across the country.

Second, the LSC has a major job to do to ensure the proposed new specialist diplomas are seen to have equal status with GCSEs and A-levels. The education system will look to colleges to develop vocational learning and take the lead on developing the curriculum and sharing facilities.

FE must seize these opportunities. Although 14-19 learning will be more competitive than ever as schools offer vocational learning, leadership will lie with colleges. It is time to make FE's expertise count or it will be eroded.

So how does the sector persuade those who doubt its ability, and how do we safeguard what makes it special? The best way to keep FE at the fulcrum of delivering the 14-19 paper and coming skills white paper is to be the best at what we do, and keep improving. We have a twin-track approach to improvement: the "agenda for change" programme and the review of the future role of FE colleges.

I am confident that the LSC's agenda for change is going to fix many barriers to improving FE - because it was born out of discussions with principals and others on the FE frontline. The agenda focuses on five themes familiar to anyone in FE:skillsemployers, quality, funding, efficiency and data, with a cross-cutting theme of reputation. The LSC is calling on the best heads in FE to build mutually-beneficial relationships between colleges and employers, share proven ways of hiking standards, deliver money where it is needed and with less fuss, increase efficiency by promoting business excellence, and reduce data-gathering burdens.

We need longer-term change too. The FE Review by Sir Andrew Foster is a crucial blue-skies look at the sector that will consider its long-term direction. It will help carve out a distinctive role for colleges in the shifting sand of the education and training market.

Now is not the time to be seduced by the academic-versus-vocational debate.

It is time to put the needs of our 4 million FE learners at the heart of what we do. It is time to be proud of vocational study and not shoehorn it into something sounding academic when it is not. If FE can lead on vocational learning and carve out a role as the architect of collaboration, it can transform outcomes for learners and employers, and enhance its reputation.

Rob Wye is LSC director of strategy

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