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Stick to what you're good at

Lifelong learning minister Margaret Hodge tells colleges that success depends on focus. Ian Nash reports

Before a college rushes to join the post-14 revolution it should ask whether that is playing to its strengths, says Margaret Hodge, the lifelong learning and higher education minister.

"It may not be right for every college to focus on that agenda. It may be right for some but not others," she said this week in an interview with FE Focus.

Her views are close to those of college managers. Much depends on location, patterns of provision and the college's aspirations. But the same managers detected intemperate tones and "noises off" in press reports of a speech where she said similar things. There was talk of "intervention", the "death" of general FE colleges and even "closure".

But Ms Hodge insisted in her interview that she was not denigrating colleges. "I described my visit to Runshaw College, which I found a truly comprehensive and an excellent place. I said there's a lot of excellent practice in colleges. We are relaunching the beacon programme in recognition of this."

She cautioned, however: "We want to build on the best but I have to say that it is patchy.

"Inspection results suggest many colleges may be taking on too big a task. I am concerned that on current evidence, 40 per cent of colleges require full or partial re-inspection. That is not acceptable." The Association of Colleges contests this, and also disagrees with the minister's insistence that students have only a 50:50 chance of success.

Ms Hodge said: "This is not the end of the general FE college but, we have to question, are we asking colleges to do too broad a range of jobs? Particularly in the urban context, it may be sensible to think about whether we can raise standards and provide better quality by getting colleges to focus on what they do best. One may excel giving a 16 to 19 broad-based curriculum. Another may excel in giving skills for work. This is the start of a bigger debate not a search for instant solutions. We must look at different models and see what works.

"Look at all the evidence from the Office for Standards in Education, the adult learning inspectorate and others providing performance indicators - where there's a real focus, it tends to lead to higher standards."

But specialisation need not mean splitting-up cost-effective colleges. "It may be that we need dedicated sixth-form centres in FE colleges - which many are already doing."

For the first time there was "real engagement" in the post-16 agenda. "When did you last hear that Number 10 and Number 11 were thinking seriously about FE? This is very much an invest and reform agenda," she said.

However, in what many will see as a cautionary note against industrial action, she said: "Those who say the answer lies only in money as a solution are misguided.

"This is very outdated approach and not one we can buy into. It is a betrayal of those people for whom FE is the vehicle for improving opportunity."

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