Thanks to collaborative partnerships developed by colleges with schools and local employers, further education can give broad, personalised education at all levels and for people of all abilities.
We will be able to do even more with the more flexible curriculum and simpler funding proposed.
The FE sector is particularly good at bringing out the best in people. It delivers 94 per cent of all basic-skills qualifications and produces 44 per cent of all undergraduates for higher education. This is done by concentrating on individual needs and aspirations, with back-up guidance and support.
Through the 14-19 Increased Flexibility Programme, access to this college expertise is available from age 14. This can lead young people back into A-levels or to an apprenticeship.
The opportunities are about to get broader. Diplomas announced in the Government's recent white paper are already being planned by a partnership of organisations ranging from sector skills councils and the Department for Education and Skills to the learning providers and awarding bodies.
The new unitised specialist diploma will offer further choice for around half our young people. Assessment reforms and vocationally related diplomas will give colleges greater freedom to tailor the curriculum to meet HE and employer demands.
But if the curriculum is to work, it must be relevant. This requires a change of attitude on the part of employers who will have to contribute far more than they do to support young people's learning.
Employers will be expected to provide apprenticeships and work experience.
They must get involved in curriculum design and be actively engaged in project work, presentations and mentoring. Whether they are prepared to do this remains to be seen.
Diplomas are a big step towards developing a curriculum to meet the needs of all. The current choice polarises young people. Either they choose an academic route, for which they may not be suited, or they make decisions about jobs before they are ready.
The diplomas promise to develop the skills needed for employment and those additional skills that are highly valued by employers: time management, teamwork and applying knowledge.
Given the increasing demand for such skills, the diploma route may replace apprenticeships for employers willing to undertake job-specific training themselves.
We need significant investment in technology in order to make this this work. Development - starting now for the diplomas of 2010 - must be built on the assumption that much testing and learning will happen online.
More significantly, a broader and more complex learning programme for each young person will demand reliable teaching and banking of units. Who will undertake this role? How will the multiplicity of bodies currently awarding qualifications feed their individual results into a central portal? How long will credit have currency? Who will pay for this?
Maggie Scott is director of learning and quality at the Association of Colleges
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