Colleges are expected to play a vital role in achieving Labour's aim of keeping everyone in education and training to the age of 18.
This aim was widely proclaimed this week as the political parties began chasing voters at the general election on May 5.
In two speeches on education, Gordon Brown pointed to the importance of reaching 16 and 17-year-olds who have left the system. The Chancellor promised to support regular training for young employees and an extension of educational maintenance allowances to those in unpaid training.
Labour's education manifesto said colleges would be expected to have both dedicated centres for 16 to 19-year-olds and centres of vocational excellence. In addition, skills academies led by entrepreneurs and employers will be set up.
Labour's promises came after the Liberal Democrats had made early running by giving substance to a long-cherished policy objective. Phil Willis, their spokesman for education and skills, said: "We are committed to eliminating the disparity in funding between colleges and schools offering the same courses."
They estimate that the cost will be around pound;330 million, to be funded from the pound;5 billion the Liberal Democrats say they can find by adjusting priorities across the range of government spending. The promise is carefully worded.
The Association of Colleges has pointed out that the funding gap also includes elements such as additional money schools receive for teachers'
pensions and colleges paying VAT where schools do not.
An AoC spokesman said, however, that this was a significant commitment. It is a victory for the persistence of the Lib Dem education team, unable to make such a commitment only a few weeks ago, who also reaffirmed their commitment to fulfilling the agenda on 14-19 qualifications laid out in the Tomlinson report.
The Conservatives unveiled their policies - including an anti-bureaucracy agenda highlighted by a promise to abolish the Learning and Skills Council and several other quangos and capital development to underpin a new group of super colleges - earlier this year. But they are unlikely to be pushed very hard. At least two education-themed days are planned, but further education may not be emphasised in either.
Their spokesman Mark Hoban, appointed when Chris Grayling was moved into the health team in February, will be concentrating on his own Fareham constituency and neighbouring target seats in Hampshire.
The inter-party battle over the next three weeks will be supplemented by one, fought as much against as between the parties, to keep FE visible against a natural emphasis on schools and - at this election - on student funding. Where the opposition parties will home in on Labour's unequivocal breaking of its 2001 promise on student fees.
Among the bodies pushing the FE agenda, both the AoC and the lecturers'
union Natfhe, which is working with the Association of University Teachers, will be sending candidates from the three main parties questionnaires seeking their views. The AoC is campaigning strongly on the funding gap, a view echoed by Natfhe and the AUT which also want to see action on, among other issues, the academic-vocational divide and an end to casualisation of the workforce and course closures.
Some candidates will be answering on the basis of first-hand knowledge.
Labour candidates include Khalid Mahmood, formerly development manager at South Birmingham college, who hopes to retain Perry Barr. Liberal Democrats include Tim Perkins, formerly a lecturer at City college, Manchester, as challenger to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly in Bolton West, and Mike Plummer, a lecturer in business and management studies at both Bournemouth and Poole college and Bournemouth university.
Maurice Patterson, finance officer at Thomas Rotherham college and vice-chair of the College Finance Directors Group, is running for the UK Independence party in Sheffield Hillsborough and points out that his party has got an FE policy: "We are calling for a reduction in bureaucracy, much of which starts with Europe, and for a shift in funding from inappropriate degree courses into those which give people worthwhile and important skills."
PARTY POSITIONS ON FE
"Achieving a transformation of FE colleges requires both our increased investment and serious reform" - from education manifesto, issued this week
* Universal education to extend in practice from three to 18;
* Every college to have a centre of vocational excellence;
* Every college to have a dedicated centre for 16 to 19-year-olds;
* Skills academies led by entrepreneurs and employers to be set up;
* Extension of education maintenance allowance to young people in unwaged training in England;
* Support for regular training for 16 to 17-year-olds currently not being trained.
"Labour have ignored the further education sector." - from Election Manifesto issued this week
* Abolition of Learning and Skills Council, Sector Skills Development Agency, Learning and Skills Development Agency will assist in funding FE
* New categories of super colleges and national specialist colleges with enhanced capital funding;
* Funding for students taking first qualification at NVQ level 3 (A-level equivalent);
* Replacement of Connexions service with national careers service.
"The Liberal Democrats are the only party offering fair funding for colleges" - Phil Willis, Lib Dem education spokesman said last week 7.4.05.
* Equal funding for colleges and schools offering same courses;
* Implementation of Tomlinson reforms for 14-19 qualifications;
* Statutory time off for all 16 to 19-year-old employees to study up to first NVQ level 3;
* Reform of Connexions.
LABOUR'S 2001 PROMISES
* To "guarantee the real-terms funding of pupils in school sixth forms if student numbers are maintained, and bring up the funding for sixth-form and FE colleges". FAILED - funding gap still around 10 per cent.
* To close the gap between financial support for FE and HE students. PARTLY ACHIEVED - guaranteed funding up to NVQ level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), but at the expense of higher fees for non-vocational courses .
* 750,000 achieving basic skills levels by 2004. ACHIEVED.
* Extending individual learning accounts. FAILED - ILAs abolished.
* Dramatically improving the quality and quantity of prison education.
FAILED - highly critical report by MPs published last month.
* Dedicated colleges for under-19s. UNDERWAY.
* Half of all colleges to be recognised centres of vocational excellence by 2003-4. TARGET REDEFINED.
* Educational maintenance allowances to cover 30 per cent of the country.
* "We will not introduce top-up fees." PROMISE BROKEN.