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P-p-perils of penguin-like star gazing

Colin Flint continues the FE Focus debate on the future of the sector with a warning that colleges must avoid merging with universities.

RAF pilots in the Falklands invented a game to relieve the tedium of "the world's most boring posting". Penguins are mesmerised by aeroplanes, so the pilots started flying over their beaches. As a plane turns, so do the penguin heads, like spectators in a slow-motion tennis match. When a plane flies out to sea and passes over their heads, they look up and up, and 10,000 penguins topple on their backs.

This could become a metaphor for FE as we look at options for expansion. While most principals are not so easily mesmerised there is twittering about what will happen next, about whether an albatross or the Starship Enterprise is hovering overhead - will it dump on us or carry us into the next dimension?

So far we've had a bit of both and we are not exactly covered in glory. At least one principal has been jailed, lots more are having trouble with targets, staff or sums. Some, anxious to get their colleges out of the sector, tell us they'll do more for FE when they are no longer in it.

But merger with higher education, which is tempting many, is not the answer. FE is too important to be subsumed into universities; they've got problems of their own, and "mission creep" - the drift from low-level to prestigious degree courses - is hard to resist. Proper partnerships, yes; takeover, no.

Three years after incorporation FE does not behave as a sector but we have been treated as one. As much divided as united us, and no time was given to examining the implications of that. General FE and sixth-form colleges were not seeking to do the same job; we had different cultures, preoccupations and strengths. There was a prevailing myth that our task was mainly about increasing participation among school-leavers; it wasn't.

So our first task is to act confidently as a sector before considering mergers elsewhere. We must also help sort out the 16 to 19 qualifications mess and make sure Sir Ron Dearing's reforms meet the wider needs of adults.

The country still does not know what to do with 16-19s, or at least 60 per cent of them. It's not just uneconomic sixth forms. Sir Ron's review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds is still being asked "to maintain the rigour of A-levels".

Sir Ron said in his interim report: "A-levels are effective for the purpose for which they were designed." Good for getting a particular top-sliced minority into universities to read largely academic degrees, but not much else.

Unless we are prepared to submit A-levels to rigorous criticism and reform, we will fail to give necessary and deserved credibility to vocational qualifications. And so say the CBI, the TUC, the Headmasters' Conference, the Association for Colleges, the Tory Reform Group, the Labour party (I think) and practically everybody else.

We cannot automatically go the way of HE. The model for college independence was flawed. What worked for the polytechnics, institutions with budgets of Pounds 30 million or more, may not work for colleges with on average a third of that, with the most disparate and diverse customers in the whole of education. The funding methodology has much to commend it, a brave attempt at a herculean task, it is neat, elegant and relatively fair. But there are still major problems - we are still a long way from bringing the high and low spending colleges nearer the average.

Finally we must tackle the needs of millions who do not even enter college, let alone university. We haven't always behaved very well. There has been too much pursuit of soft targets, instead of sector-wide creativity applied to the real challenges. Recent statistics published by the Further Education Funding Council announced that there were 3.2 million students in the colleges in 1994-95 in England and around 3.6 million in the United Kingdom. But it's far from enough. The economically active population in 1994 was more than 28 million, and we're not going to achieve the kind of penetration that we need by going after other people's students, or by franchising unlimited numbers of scuba divers.

Franchising - sharing courses or selling them to industry, schools and higher education - should have been foreseen as an inevitable development under the FEFC funding formula.

FE has always been good at taking its opportunities, even if they're not always the right ones. The imperative to grow and the funding formula led to franchising and poaching, with nothing in place to limit or regulate either. It was a huckster's charter which made hucksters of many. As a sector, we have not been good at self-regulation, and we've wasted time on squabbling with each other, instead of collectively defining and promoting our strengths.

There is nothing wrong with franchising, where it is properly negotiated and monitored, and leads to new learners and increased skill levels. The greater part of it has replaced old models of industrial training, and is consistent with the urgent need for relevant national vocational qualifications. This is where expansion and ambitious targets are really necessary, our biggest deficiency compared with our competitors, the part that only FE can and must deliver.

We want a strong, self-confident, unified FE college sector, dealing independently with schools, industry and universities. We want a nation of learners. The recent Department for Education and Employment document on lifetime learning, however, exemplifies our problems. Presumably we all welcome focusing public debate on lifelong learning's link to economic prosperity, social cohesion and the personal development.

The analysis in the consultative document is correct "creating a culture of lifetime learning is crucial to sustaining our international competitiveness", but it offers no solutions, fails to recognise the state as the key player and stakeholder. Both industry and individuals will need to contribute. Individuals need entitlement because in our unequal society finance is the major barrier to participation.

This country needs, above all, an education for social transformation. Our present deep-rooted cultural complacencies and prejudices won't deliver it. We need a conceptual revolution, driven by values different from most of those that have directed us for the past 20 years and a different kind of vision.

I believe that it's the same kind of vision that drives good FE, but it's not achieved in three years, and if we don't identify it clearly, and pursue it consistently, then we won't achieve it in the 21st century either. And then we'll all fall like 10,000 penguins flat on our backs.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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