OVER the past few months there have been increasing calls for some colleges to withdraw from national training. This may well result in weakening one of the central planks of New Labour's strategy - that of widening and increasing post-16 participation.
The effect of this call for constraint could be serious - both in terms of the national learning targets and the lives of thousands of people. It could potentially inhibit the sector in responding to the national skills agenda in meeting learning targets, and prevent FE from playing the significant role in lifelong learning envisaged by the Government.
There are some colleges who are working with national companies on a non-franchise basis to deliver national vocational qualifications. They ensure that work-based training is available to groups of employees who have previously been completely cut off from any opportunity to gain training and qualifications.
In a number of cases it is completely impractical for a national company to deal with hundreds of local colleges. The combination of work-based training through NVQs, along with the ability of colleges to use distance-learning materials, peripatetic tutorial staff, and the Internet to support learning, is opening up new opportunities for those previously excluded from traditional day-release or other types of FE.
For example, over the past three years Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, has worked with a number of national companies to provide NVQs in the workplace to well over 10,000 learners in all parts of England. These companies make a considerable financial contribution to the cost of the programme in line with current Further Education Funding Council policy, enabling the majority of company staff to gain qualifications. They had previously made unsuccessful attempts to provide NVQs themselves for the majority of their employees.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a significant amount of training delivered to those in employment was provided by private companies. Some of this training was high-cost, low-quality and provided the learner with little more than a worthless piece of paper, which stated that they had been on a course.
By allowing FE colleges to become involved in this type of provision, the FEFC helped to improve quality to ensure that all learners studied in a structured way towards a national qualification.
The result of the collaboration between colleges and national companies has been a major improvement in provision. It has also led to a widening of participation especially among those who, traditionally had been excluded, many of whom were in low-skilled, low-paid jobs.
A few months ago I was invited with educational leaders to Number 10 by the Prime Minister and we heard first-hand of how much reliance the Government placed on FE to deliver the national skills agenda. I firmly believe that we can address the skills strategy he outlined.
Colleges strongly support the new collaborative environment bringing to the partnerships a well balanced curriculum portfolio that includes a range of learning styles. Where colleges have developed strong links with national companies hundreds of thousands of individuals have accessed national qualifications for the first time. The quality of such programmes is subject to the same audit and inspection rigour as any of the traditional courses.
We should learn from the examples of good practice that exist in national training today and start building for the future.
A possible way forward could be through the direct funding of national companies linked to specialist colleges who are contracted to deliver work-based nationally recognised qualifications. This would give the colleges a further way of responding positively to the University for Industry initiative. It could also present an opportunity for collaborative work with trades unions and employers.
Recent experience has proved that FE is addressing an unmet need. This need will remain even if colleges are barred from providing for it. These are exactly the learners we need to attract if we are to meet the Government's ambitious expansion targets.
If we abandon all national training and other initiatives that don't fall into the narrow definition of traditional college-based FE, we could fall seriously short of delivering the Government's national learning targets. What could happen is that those companies currently offering NVQs and other recognised qualifications will retreat into their previous regime, which was characterised by small amounts of training, a lack of lack of recognised qualifications and the exclusion from learning of a large number of employees.
The author is principal of Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton