In the week before a debate on the sector's problems FE Focus editor Ian Nash sifts through key players' concerns for the future
The dominant concern of the movers and shakers is the sector's image and reputation.
Many see a struggling sector which is fuzzy, vague of purpose and unwieldy in size. Nor is it easy to fit FE into the spectrum of educational activities from cradle to grave.
New Labour's efforts to bring colleges, school sixth forms, adult and community learning and work-based training under the "learning and skills" banner seem destined to muddy waters further.
The lack of clarity which besets FE allows it to be used as a political football, and each new political administration reshapes the game: yesterday adult education, today 14 to 19, tomorrow skills for work. And what next?
FE Focus asked 50 leading thinkers, policy-makers, managers and administrators: "If you could achieve one thing in the FE sector, what would it be?" The first results, published today on our relaunched website (www.fefocus.co.uk) reveal frustration.
But a sector that brings together education and training for work and for social cohesion emerges from their thinking. Their views reflect the big questions being asked by Sir Andrew Foster in his FE review. They consider who should lead the sector and what its purpose is. What values should it promote and what strategies are needed to improve the reputation of colleges and other providers?
Chris Banks, chair of the Learning and Skills Council, asks if those who use the service are listened to enough. He wants employers and learners to be "at the heart of it", making "a vital contribution to both social inclusion and to economic prosperity".
His chief executive, Mark Haysom, wants the LSC to lead a radical transformation in the way education and training are delivered. This means making the structures and processes "simpler, more efficient and effective". Hence the planned cut of 1,300 LSC posts. For some, this is not enough. Patrick Ainley, professor of education and training at Greenwich university, calls for an end to quangos. "I would abolish them all and put FE (and HE) back under the control of democratically-elected local authorities."
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says: "I would like to see FE lose its image as a service for young people and become the leader in developing a genuinely community-based lifelong learning service. The image it has is little changed from when I was a day-release student many years ago - I dropped out."
It is the crux of the problem for many. Even where things have markedly improved, the message has not necessarily changed the public perception of a local "tech" for failures and also-rans.
Dan Taubman, national education official for Natfhe, the lecturers' union, says the perception of a second-rate service is reinforced by the lack of resources for professional staff development. "The historic lack of spending is not yet compensated in extra resources."
The impact FE has on people's lives is graphically spelled out by Geoff Daniels, director of funding for the LSC. "In any one year, one in five of the population is involved with its services. Yet its contribution is not seen or valued by decision-makers and opinion-formers as well as it should be."
His wish is to do away with the complex data-collection, funding and assessment regimes. "Complexity breeds incomprehension and frustration among the people we need to influence," he says.
However, introducing fair funding for all schools, colleges and training groups and an end to bureaucracy would not be enough. Vocational qualifications are still underrated, says Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management.
He wants to see equal esteem, status and recognition from employers, higher education, funding bodies and the Government. He said: "The Government has missed a rare opportunity by failing to implement the Tomlinson recommendations (for a 14-19 diploma) and the result will be that many students will fail to reach their full potential."
Many complain of insufficient "vision" among those who make the policy and those who provide the education.
Lynne Sedgmore, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, sees this as her challenge: "I would aspire to develop a larger cadre of confident, high-performing visionary leaders."
Dennis Hayes, head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church college, gives a gloomy prognosis: "Politicians today are incapable of coming up with anything visionary and their 'big ideas' seem to be nothing more than attempts to reshuffle and rename provision."
The future of the sector therefore lies in the hands not of politicians but of the managers, lecturers and users themselves, he says. "The independent Concord Group has some enthusiastic members (from 10 national post-16 organisations) and, precisely because it is independent, could set about some of the groundwork necessary for a rethinking of what further education is."
These issues will be debated next week at the TES national learning and skills symposium, at the Institute of Directors in London. Proceedings will be published in FE Focus and on the website.
To take part in the debate: "If you could achieve one thing in the FE sector, what would it be?"
please email your views in a maximum of 100 words to email@example.com
THE WAY FORWARD: THE EXPERT PRESCRIPTION
"I want to convince employers that whatever is or is not happening for schools and universities, their future learning and skills needs will never be met without the further education sector and its success."
Sir Geoffrey Holland, chair of LSDA
"I want radical deregulation for the most successful (colleges) but active intervention where colleges are failing to provide the very best education and training for their students."
David Bell, Ofsted chief inspector
"We can be the engine room of social mobility and skills because we are rich in practical skills and attitudes. So why does the drive to professionalise our workforce not build on these strengths? Why do the routes to qualified teacher status remain so academic?"
Ruth Silver, principal, Lewisham college
"I would like a better understanding from government and policy-makers of the role colleges play in the regeneration and social inclusion agenda."
Wally Brown, principal, Liverpool community college
"I want to raise students' aspirations and give them the confidence to succeed in their chosen pathway."
Susan Pember, Department for Education and Skills
"I want an end to apathy."
David Sherlock, head of Adult Learning Inspectorate