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Speaking up for the second chance

The Kennedy report (page 26) is just that, a personal affirmation of the importance of further education. Because it makes emotional statements, it may have more impact than the worthy deliberations of committees poring over the economic importance of vocational education and training.

Helena Kennedy as a high-profile barrister close to Labour makes an effective advocate for conventional sentiments. Her demands for a Government campaign, Learning into the New Millennium, and for new Pathways to Learning, are no more than generalised wish-lists. But she pushes the cause of further education into the limelight. FE is tritely called the Cinderella service, and in the best pantomimes the prince who brings her fame and fortune is played by a woman. Ms Kennedy is well cast.

FE has not lacked achievements, as her report points out. But it has lacked clout and therefore a fair share of national resources. To secure the budgetary redistribution which Ms Kennedy wants, political and popular recognition is necessary. The contrast with the attention commanded by universities could not be more stark. Not that Ms Kennedy can afford to affront university interests in asking for more money for FE. The "efficiency" of FE colleges in educating students compared with universities can be pointed up, but university leaders remain influential and will not readily be bested in an argument about resource sharing.

So Ms Kennedy, herself chancellor of a new university, is careful to argue for more money for the post-school system as a whole and for the pursuit of the same goals of excellence for FE students as for those in higher education. But if the Government is genuine in commitment to wider participation and embraces a New Millennium campaign, then redistribution of resources becomes inevitable. The weight of students numbers would dictate it.

The argument will resume when the Dearing report is published later this month. Particularly in Scotland, colleges of further education extend into higher education as well. For both educational and financial reasons Dearing may see the distinction (or binary line) between FE and HE as outdated. But Ms Kennedy's report makes its strongest case for underwriting the traditional role of further education, especially in giving people a second chance.

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