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Out of the jungle at last

Credit-based courses are designed to help students stick at their studies. They have grown spectacularly in recent years

AFTER YEARS of grass-roots activity, Open College Networks (OCN) are beginning to play a significant national role.

In the past these networks have been characterised as the "guerrilla army" of our national qualifications system. Based on local organisations and rooted in accountability to locally elected bodies, they have set out to offer accreditation to those learners (particularly adults) for whom more conventional qualifications are inappropriate or inaccessible.

This low-intensity campaign has been slowly gathering momentum in the margins of our qualifications system over the past two decades, and open colleges are now preparing to play a more pro-active role.

Those working within such networks would probably reject these images of conflict in characterising their relationships with other awarding bodies. The networks have always promoted their accreditation system as complementary to more traditional qualifications, seeking to develop progression routes from less formal provision for adults into the more structured offerings of FE colleges and other providers. This long-term strategy has certainly been successful. Over the past three years, network accreditation has grown spectacularly, particularly in FE. For example: * There are now about 2, 500 centres offering OCN-accredited programmes; * The networks are collectively the fourth largest vocational awarding body in Britain; * In 1996-97 some 350, 000 learners registered on OCN-accredited programmes; * During this same period, around 1 million credits will be awarded to learners.

The extent to which the original mission of OCNs has been maintained through this period of expansion is also impressive : * More than 80 per cent of learners are over 19 years of age; * Some 13 per cent of these learners are from ethnic minority communities; * Around two-thirds of learners are unemployed or unwaged; * About 10 per cent of OCN credits are awarded to learners with learning difficulties or basic skills needs.

This commitment to the targeting of OCN accreditation at under-represented groups has been preserved since the early 1980s. Now, following the publication of the Tomlinson and Kennedy reports and in anticipation of the new White Paper on Lifelong Learning, OCNs see their agenda finally being taken up in the mainstream of the FE sector.

This journey has been steered to some extent by the development of the National Open College Network, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Through the organisation, OCNs have established a framework of national standards and a representative structure which enables a national group to speak with authority on behalf of the 32 OCNs now operating across Britain.

Within the emerging framework of national qualifications, it is NOCN that is taking OCN accreditation forward. It is now the approved awarding body for vocational qualifications on behalf of all OCNs, and is developing its awarding body role in other areas. Its new Entry Level award is now available, a Key Skills award will follow shortly and more national initiatives are due to follow. In all this NOCN is seeking to develop a national profile without forgetting its local roots.

It remains to be seen whether the growth of networks accreditation since FE colleges went independent can be sustained in the framework of qualifications being developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

I am optimistic about the future. If we can maintain our local accountability and responsiveness within the national framework established by QCA, we can continue to grow at the same time as supporting the Government's key policy initiatives for lifelong learning.

It sounds almost conventional.

* The author is chief executive of the NOCN

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