Carole Stott (right), chief executive of the newly accredited National Open College Network, describes the wideningopportunities for adult students and the future of the lifelong learning movement.
We have just moved our headquarters up to the top floor at the University of Derby, doubling our office space. We now have panoramic views of the city.
This upwards move is symbolic. The National Open College Network (NOCN) was recently granted accredited awarding body status by the regulatory bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We already operate the biggest single accreditation system for adult learning in the UK. Now, with our new status, we can develop new unitised, credit-based qualifications specifically designed for lifelong learning.
Going down this route was a big decision for us. We didn't start off as a qualifications awarding body - that's not our raison d'etre. But we have decided to award qualifications because it's another route for our learners. And we're coming at it from exactly the opposite end to most other awarding bodies. We're coming at it from the ground up.
The open college networks go back some 20 years. They began around adult education and access to higher education in Manchester and London.
They grew out of a recognition that adults were taking courses and constantly meeting dead ends - getting no formal recognition for that achievement. They never knew the value or the quality of what they had done. And often if they did decide they wanted to go on to college, there was no recognition for anything they had already done. They had to go back and start all over again.
So the networks grew into a movement, and over the past eight or nine years its biggest growth has been in the further education sector. Today there are 29 local open college networks throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland and last year they had more than 633,000 learners.
One of the national network's advantages is that we are completely independent. It is funded through its member open college networks, and they are funded through payments for the accreditation service. So we are not beholden to anybody.
And I think we have a fantasic structure - we have an enviable structure. It's very organic. All 29 networks have field workers, development officers, admin support. They're very close to the providers, able to give on-the-ground support and very much in touch with what the needs are.
We don't develop qualifications behind closed doors, sitting in a room and then go and sell them to the colleges. We develop them with the colleges and with the adult education centres. We work with them on their needs - where there are gaps for adults.
I'm absolutely determined that this structure won't be compromised by becoming a national organisation. We have introduced some control by becoing an awarding body appointing a chief executive, introducing licensing for networks. But we will stay very much a network organisation.
My own career path has been one fairly typical to many women in further education and has taken me right across the spectrum. I began teaching English and drama at a secondary school in Surrey. I gave up work when I had children and went back as a part-time further education lecturer. I became very engaged in adult learning and took a degree at Warwick around continuing education and second chance learning. I worked for Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, and became involved with open college networks from 1991. I became chief executive of the NOCN in July last year.
That we are now a national organisation and have a chief executive is perhaps a recognition that more and more weight is being given to the unitised credit-based approach to learning. And we'd say this is because it works. Practitioners like it and it's got quite a credible academic respectability. It has a very sound base - it's been developed over 20 years with us in the UK, but much longer internationally.
There is some fascinating work happening around credit. At the University of Derby they're working on an interesting model, a single framework through from further to higher education. In Wales, further and higher education are developing a single credit-based framework and we're linking in with that (see page 10). And the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is giving advice to ministers this July on the potential of unitisation and credit for adults.
Now that the national network has awarding body status, we are submitting new qualifications to the QCA for approval. Important to us are key areas such as basic skills and entry level.
We also want to develop a lifelong learning qualification, which is about the important skills people need to become lifelong learners. We have done a lot of work around that.
We are part of the qualifications framework, able to offer qualifications designed especially for adults and designed for widening participation.
And we'll also be able to continue to work outside the qualifications, and do the accreditation on local programmes. We have a network structure which involves partnerships, linking ideally to the local lifelong learning partnerships in the learning and skills councils.
All of our local networks are partnerships of further and higher education, local authorities, voluntary organisations - all the new stakeholders in the Learning and Skills Council agenda. Open college networks are already working that way.
So all of this means that we can provide for adults and for the widening participation agenda. We can provide a comprehensive service across all fronts.
Carole Stott was talking to Martin Whittaker