The current Labour Government has brought in a a whirlwind of initiatives, performance targets, and structural changes, backed by big increases in investment, to transform public services.
But demonstrable improvements have been slow in coming. Politicians worry that the public remains sceptical about whether the huge increases in funding represent value for money.
At the same time, economic storm clouds loom: sluggish growth, rising taxation, and rapidly growing public borrowing. Not surprising then that ministers are making consistently gloomy noises about spending in the next few years.
Colleges wil have a crucial role delivering key government objectives, both economic and social. Giving them this role represents a vote of confidence in them. That confidence is well-placed. Colleges have shown that they can respond to the changing government agenda, launching a plethora of initiatives, while continuing to deliver high quality learning. The 94 per cent learner satisfaction rating recorded in a recent Learning and Skills Council - far in excess of any other public service - is testament to the quality of learning, and the importance of FE in transforming lives.
But realisation of the Government's goals means not just setting targets, but also providing a supportive environment that offers colleges freedom to respond to local needs, encourages innovation and creativity, and minimises bureaucracy. In this respect much remains to be done before trust in FE can be regarded as a reality.
Above all, securing the Government's goals requires funding levels that match its aspirations. Despite the headlines around the 2002 spending review, many colleges found themselves worse off in 20034 because of complications with funding re-organisation and increases in pensions and national insurance.
While the prospects for funding in 20045 and 20056 look a little brighter, the improvements will allow only modest progress in tackling problems of recruitment and retention arising from the decline in FE staff's pay relative to other professions. New performance-related funding may also limit the cash available to many colleges.
It is already plain as well that there is not enough extra money to meet the Government's own priorities of 16-19 and adult basic skills - let alone to support the new level 2 entitlement and other aims of the skills strategy.
Quite simply, government aspirations for the sector have run ahead of funding. It will be vital that this disparity be tackled in the current spending review. The rising population of 16 to 19-year-olds will itself demand more resources simply to meet statutory obligations, But if the Government is serious about drawing back into learning those not in education, employment or training fresh funds must be provided. If it wishes to extend vocational learning opportunities to 14 to 16-year-olds and to reform the curriculum to provide better progression opportunities, there must be a properly resourced programme available on a national basis.
Funding for 16-19 must also be harmonised across sectors and more effective information, advice and guidance support made available.
If the level 2 entitlement and the improvements in adult skills to bring UK productivity levels to those of our competitor nations are to be delivered, considerable expansion in adult learning will be vital, with proper support for adult learners and effective mechanisms for stimulating employer commitment to training. If the momentum for raising standards is to be maintained, considerable investment will be required to equip colleges with buildings and facilities fit for the 21st century, to enhance the skills of the FE workforce, and to carry through pay modernisation process.
If the Prime Minister's target of 50 per cent participation in higher education is to be achieved, the number doing level 3 qualificatoins must rise sharply.
There also needs to be a further drive to cut red tape, reduce expenditure on regulation and inspection, and to simplify targets and funding streams.
If all this can be achieved then colleges will truly be able to fulfil a dynamic role in deliveringh the Government's goals.
John Brennan is chief executive of the Association of Colleges