Pressing home the value of FE

When the Confederation for British Industry criticised colleges for "failing" industry, Ioan Morgan decided there could be only one course of action. The principal of Warwickshire College signed up for CBI membership, took a table at its annual dinner recently and confronted Richard Lambert, the director general, head-on.

He was not alone. Mr Morgan took along Les Callender, the national training director for Aston Martin, who told Lambert to his face: "You are wrong."

Warwickshire College has more than proved its importance to industry, since pound;18 million of its pound;45m annual turnover last year came from commercial training and economic development work for groups such as Aston Martin.

Mr Morgan responds to critics such as the CBI with three choice words:

"Where's the evidence?"

Nor does he accept that his college is unique or unusual. "Most colleges have good links with employers," he says. "We need more advocates from industry to speak up for us."

Rather than expect people to take his word for it, he is amassing the evidence. He is doing so through a group of 25 of the largest and most successful colleges, the 157 Group, which he chairs. The name refers to paragraph 157 of Sir Andrew Foster's 2005 review of FE colleges for the DfES, which recommends the bigger colleges unite in helping to improve the reputation of colleges.

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, has sanctioned the group to help him raise the status of FE. As FE Focus reported last month, work has started with a pound;20,000 grant from the Learning and Skills Council for Warwickshire College to pilot an American-style approach to assessing the social and economic impact of FE on the community.

If the Government hopes that the evidence Mr Morgan collects will endorse its current policy of skewing taxpayers' money to pay for demand-led skills training, ministers may need to think again.

The information from the work in 58 North Carolina colleges, on which the Warwickshire assessment is modelled, revealed a need to increase spending on "other", non-skills based further education. Moreover, it showed that so-called soft FE was just as powerful a tool for economic improvement.

For Mr Morgan, who visited the United States with Sir Andrew last year, the operation is wrapped up in the idea that colleges are key to local and regional economic development. "When a company looks to invest in an area, its first port of call should be the FE college," he says. That means having more than just a skills package to hand.

"When I worked for the Welsh Development Agency, I was trying to get the Japanese to invest. The first thing they wanted to know was what we could offer in the way of family learning."

This Government has it wrong, he insists, as a "critical friend" of ministers. "New Labour is sold on the drag-through model: get the economy right and everything else follows. I am not convinced. I take a holistic view of what a college can do. There are social aspects that should not be lost."

Every college in North America undergoes a full audit every two to three years, so taxpayers can see what return they get for their dollars. In parts of North Carolina, every dollar spent on FE returns $3 to the economy in terms of increased earnings and efficiency.

The audit looks beyond issues of skills and qualifications to the impact of FE on crime reduction and savings on health spending arising from education programmes to stop people smoking, cut obesity and improve their diets.

"In the UK, much of this evidence has been gathered anecdotally through bodies such as Niace (the national organisation for adult education), but what we need is hard evidence," Mr Morgan says.

"It is all part of the wider debate on public values, which needs to be looked at more critically. The findings of this work should be built into the LSC's framework for excellence."

This may happen since the LSC expects to develop a model from the Warwickshire pilot to apply to other colleges, large and small.

"Once there's evidence, colleges will have a much better chance of getting money for wider further and adult education, not only from the Treasury but also from employers."

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