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Pre-launch buzz ends in muted response

I am a great fan of further education. At various stages of my life, I have been along to the local tech to learn to type, brush up my calculus and play badminton. In typing, my hamfistedness left me the butt of classmates, who were practised secretaries. In maths, I met Raj and Sayeed and through them became part of the rich multicultural life that was south London in the Sixties. Later I learned to play badminton, often against Len, who had only one eye, so we never hit the shuttle to the right, a habit which remains with me.

Having enjoyed the learning and social opportunities of FE to the full, and hoping for more in the future, I have always been puzzled by its lack of recognition. At the time of our report for the Council for Industry and Higher Education on the colleges in the run-up to independence in 1993, I suspected this was because they were tucked away in the local authorities. Indeed, it was none too easy to find out how many there were. Becoming a sector in their own right would, I thought, clearly establish the colleges as part of an education triumvirate alongside schools and universities.

However, with the publication of the report, another possibility dawned. Although it was one of our centre's best, it got comparatively little coverage. Friendly journalists explained that, while they were personally enthusiastic, they couldn't get it past their news editors, who knew next-to-nothing about FE but nevertheless regarded it as a complete turn-off. Four years into the new sector, that attitude still seems to persist.

It was, therefore, a very shrewd move on the part of the Further Education Funding Council to persuade someone as articulate and well-connected as the barrister Helena Kennedy to chair its latest review. If anyone could get FE into the spotlight, she could. At recent FE conferences there has been a buzz of anticipatory excitement.

In the event, however, the early response has been muted. In spite of valiant attempts by Helena herself to publicise the report through Any Questions?, Newsnight and assiduous leaks to the broadsheets, the launch seems to have fallen a bit flat. This could have something to do with it being released on Budget day, which saw more money for schools but not the colleges, or to the news-editor effect.

But it could also be - and I am hesitant to suggest this - because it is not a very good report. This is not entirely the fault of Helena Kennedy and her committee, since their remit was widening access to FE. But, in fact, there is no evidence of an FE access problem (the statistics which the committee quotes are for higher education). On the contrary, the colleges are almost too responsive and inclusive for their own good.

FE colleges are in the vanguard of vocational education, they have as many A-level students as schools and they are continually aspiring to HE (with more than half the universities having been spun off from them). They are also in the forefront of lifelong learning - both occupational and personal - and they offer the best chance for those who, for some reason, have fallen behind, including revisiting literacy and numeracy. However, the colleges' very diversity makes it difficult for them to establish a clear identity.

The essential problem is not one of access but of resources. The Conservative government used FE as a floodplain for the unemployed, and continually demanded expansion beyond the colleges' financial capacity to provide. From 1993 they were required to take 25 per cent more students, with only an 8 per cent increase in funding, by making "efficiency gains".

Helena Kennedy recognises that there is a funding crisis, but seems at a loss as to where more money might come from. She does mention the National Lottery and creating a Learning Regeneration Fund. In her penultimate draft, she speaks forcefully of taking away the "gold card" of the universities and redistributing the money to FE, but she tones this down in the report itself. Within FE, she suggests funding should be weighted towards the least qualified.

Such an approach would not only send the wrong signals (as if my athletic training had been funded, rather than Linford Christie's) but is too blunt to achieve the ends intended. What would have carried the Kennedy report into the headlines would have been the clear articulation of a widely felt concern with practicable ideas as to how the concern could be addressed.

If I had to hazard what that concern is, I would say it is the sense of unease that too many people are not getting as much out of their lives as they could because they have missed out on literacy and numeracy during the years of formal schooling. In the longer term this can be put right at source, but the colleges, with their experience and expertise of taking education to the people, would - provided they were properly funded - be able to have a major and immediate impact.

In order to clinch the argument, however, we need to know how many people would be helped and to what extent, and how much it would cost.

Set out as a fully costed proposal, in the context of the powerful and emotional appeal which Kennedy makes, it would have been very hard for the new Government to resist. The launch on Budget day could have been about the freeing up of funds for a potentially very popular cause. Now, that would have been something to put before a news editor.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University

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