David Blunkett's exhortation for FE to abandon general missions and embrace specialist provision has not been without controversy. Powerful arguments have been advanced to extend the comprehensive mission through to 16-plus. The mixture of vocational and academic cultures and the range of career paths available in a single college offers a richer learning experience.
The creation of a hierarchy of esteem, with specialist vocational colleges at the top, sounds divisive. The designation of centres of excellence implies that some provision is not so excellent. It could draw learners unjustly away from good teaching, leading to "sink" colleges or curriculum areas.
This could involve restrictions in learner choice which are not consistent with the messages which colleges have promoted since incorporation.
Turbulent economic environments also threaten to create difficulties for colleges wanting to remain as centres of excellence. It is possible that such centres could experience falling student numbers if the structure of the local economy is unexpectedly transformed, despite the close links which are envisaged between the centres and local employers.
Delegates discussing this at the Association of Colleges conference in November were overwhelmingly in favour of adopting a more specialist mission. The arguments are persuasive. If colleges are to become the first-choice among the options for post-16 learning, then more distinctive provision, often focused around specific vocational areas, is necessary. Such colleges would be best-equipped to offer the highest standards to learners, dive innovation in vocational skills and pedagogy, and contribute most effectively to economic and social regeneration. Delegates were also impressed by the argument that specialist colleges would also have more influence at the policy-making table.
Underlying this debate is the question of who determines the availability of learning opportunities. The days of funding-driven provision which lacks a strategic dimension are over. The LSCs have a clear planning brief. In this context, perhaps the more telling issue is in getting the right mix of provision for the locality.
Each area needs comprehensive provision but each college does not need to be comprehensive. The combination of local planning mechanisms, a commitment to learner-centred provision, and an emphasis on the skills agenda provide the basis for a planned and comprehensive system of education and training.
In this structure, colleges have the opportunity to reconsider their own distinctive contribution.
It remains to be seen how LSCs will operate the planning process, stimulate demand for learning and meet the needs of individual learners as well as business.
However, the existence of the local councils helps to answer a question put by one principal mulling over the consequences of becoming a more specialised provider: "Who does what we will no longer do?" The answer is: other providers in the area who already duplicate the curriculum on offer. Either that, or the local LSC will encourage new providers to develop this area of work as their own niche in the learning market.
Graham Peeke is director of professional and organisational development at the Learning and Skills Development Agency