Editorial - Adventures in an enigmatic wonderland

31st January 2014 at 00:00

When Alice went to Wonderland, the Mad Hatter posed her a riddle: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

The answer was never disclosed and many great minds have pondered the question since. None have been able to agree on a definite answer - or indeed whether there is an answer at all.

Further education is all too similar to that riddle. It's not school and it's not university - it's that enigmatic bit between the two. It does lots of things for lots of different people but it's fiendishly difficult to define.

Everyone understands what schools are for; everyone knows what universities do. FE suffers precisely because of its diverse mission - it serves a wide age group with skills, education and training, while few even understand the difference between these. (Lord Krebs once provided a memorable explanation to his fellow peers: "If my daughters came home from school and told me that they had been to sex education classes, I would be comfortable; if they said they had been to sex training and skills classes, I would not.")

Luckily, our FE riddle is being better understood abroad, and is proving irresistible in some quarters. India has turned to the UK FE sector to learn about curriculum development, staff training and how to develop links with industry. India is rather enamoured of the model that serves up catering courses alongside aeronautical engineering. "In the UK.they run all kinds of courses, not just technical ones, and that is something we can learn from," says Dr Swati Mujumdar, director of the Symbiosis Centre for Distance Learning, one of India's largest FE providers.

That's not been the only good news for UK FE. We've waited more than 20 years for a new college, and now two have come along at once. One will train people to work on the High Speed 2 rail project, the other will teach students to build and decommission nuclear reactors. The colleges were hailed by England's skills minister Matthew Hancock as the first part of a new generation of "elite vocational institutions" providing specialist skills that could then be sold to the world.

But in telling colleges to "get out there and sell your talents" and not to look "upwards to central government", Mr Hancock also appeared to be signalling that there would be no more funding. And as Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, points out on our new FE news website, funding for FE may have already gone through the looking glass - 5:4:8 is the ratio of per capita funding for schools, FE and higher education. "It is hard to know why a 16- to 18-year-old is worth so much less than an 11- to 16-year-old or a student in HE," Doel says. It's a pertinent question.

All of which brings us back to the answer to that riddle. The emotive pull of schools is strong and the voice of higher education slick and assertive, but recent developments in FE should inspire confidence; it's a moment the sector must seize. FE has to keep trying to define and explain what it does to both politicians and the public - otherwise the standard answer to the question of what FE is for will remain, to quote the Hatter: "I haven't the slightest idea."



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