Spot of DIY for sheep and goats

HAROLD Wilson, when he was Leader of the Opposition in an election campaign, coined the phrase "the white heat of technology". People understood what he meant. He envisaged a regenerated Britain at the forefront of technological innovation.

To bring this Britain into being we would need an expanded higher education sector and, Wilson might have added, a vibrant network of colleges equipped to provide programmes of study at craft and technician level: a seamless service to support the new age.

It didn't happen, at least not for further education. Nearly 40 years on, Britain is still short of people with middle-range qualifications at technician level.

We have enough graduates, if not always in the most critical technology fields. Colleges have certainly developed since the 1960s. But some of their expansion has been in general education, notably in A-levels, now the millstone of a gone-for-ever past.

Colleges have changed in response to the market. Managers have promoted training and education, community-based provision and classroom learning as well as higher education and remedial work with adults.

Colleges occupy a place in the public consciousness akin to that of DIY stores. We are useful, open for long hours, have a wide range of products, but are not exactly classy. Perhaps that is about to change. Not that we will reinvent ourselves as posh emporiums, but we may have to specialise and sharpen our image.

Perhaps, in future, schools will do what they have always done, cover the compulsory years with layers of general education. Sixth-form colleges will provide the academic routes to university, displacing school sixth forms, which will not have the resources to give the breadth required for Curriculum 2000 and its successors. Universities will do the spit-an-polish job. Training will take place in firms and the standards reached by trainees will be assessed by workplace colleagues. Where does it leave FE colleges?

The consultation now going on shows that the Government is intent reforming Modern Apprenticeships. Behind the consultation, from which colleges have been largely excluded so far, is a clear expectation that the practical, hands-on training which colleges have traditionally provided in, say, engineering, catering or construction could be eliminated. Workplace learning will take its place. There will be the supporting knowledge for national vocational qualifications, but firms might want to provide that themselves or use the private sector, which means no guarantees of business for colleges there.

Perhaps colleges should specialise to differentiate from schools and universities. Their next incarnation could be as all-age technical high schools, with curriculum focus on vocational GCSEs, including some offered to pupils in the last two years of compulsory schooling, and vocational A levels.

If this happened, the gap between academic and vocational strands of education would widen. Yet, all the rhetoric of successive governments has been about closing the gap. It is not just a matter of ideology: in our divided system people make wrong choices for wrong reasons. They get frustrated and the fall-out contaminates our society and economy. With one kind of institution for academics and another for the practically-minded, we are back to the 1940s and the pattern of grammar schools for the swift counterbalanced by their theoretical equivalent, secondary moderns, for the also-rans. And remember in those days that dried eggs and Spam were treats.

Michael Austin is principal of

Accrington and Rossendale College

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