Much further to go

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
The needs of the learner will shape and change the FE picture for years to come, writes John Graystone

Change was in the air at fforwm's annual conference in Llandudno earlier this month. In the past six months alone, we have responded to at least 10 important consultation documents.

With the setting up of the new Department for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DELLS) in the Assembly government, and the reform of FE funding and planning, is a restructuring of the delivery arm next in line?

Since incorporation in 1993, colleges have become more efficient, enrolling 64 per cent more full-time learners, while the funding unit has fallen by 18.7 per cent.

The average college has around 2,500 learners aged 16-19 (an average school sixth form has around 170-180) and offers a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. Standards have steadily improved. Colleges are a success story. But we cannot stand still.

Reforms are proposed or under way in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, any reform of the post-16 sector must take account of several points.

First, demographic changes. The school population has declined. Over the next 15 years, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds will go down more than 15 per cent (18,000). Meanwhile, the 19-plus population will increase by 280,000 in Wales.

Second, research by the Learning and Skills Network in England (FE Focus, June 2) shows that schools perform no better than FE and sixth-form colleges when previous attainment is taken into account. Diseconomies of scale begin to operate powerfully for sixth forms of fewer than 200 students, and few in Wales are this large.

Third, Esytn has produced two important reports on 16-19 provision. The first identifies many strengths of school sixth forms but concludes that, because their curriculum offer is narrow - often A-levels only - schools do not provide well for about half the post-16 students not achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C.

The second Estyn report shows that co-operation and partnership between schools and FE is not working. Only 4 per cent of schools "co-ordinate or collaborate" with FE, and nearly a third just "co-operate". Co-operation affects only 5 per cent of school pupils, usually at A-level.

Astonishingly, 64 per cent of schools are in direct competition with colleges, or act in isolation. This means many schools do not allow colleges to provide information to school-leavers.

The explanations for this lack of partnership are complex, but include transport and timetabling difficulties, mutual lack of trust, the absence of a strategic planning body to oversee collaboration, and a funding system which pits school against college as both seek to maximise learner numbers.

The many Assembly government policy commitments and initiatives encouraging partnership have worked only on the surface. Structural differences remain.

We need to build on the innovative work carried out in the late 1990s as a result of the "education and training action plan" (ETAP), which led to the setting up of ELWa, the now defunct post-16 education funding agency.

We all signed up to parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, the need for an integrated approach post-16, and the widening of access. Schools and colleges should be on the same side - that of the student.

The Learning Country 2, the Assembly government's updated education programme to 2010, proposes a review of FE in Wales. fforwm welcomes this but believes that FE cannot be considered in isolation. As by far the largest provider, FE should rightly be the central focus of the review. But in the post-16 education and lifelong learning sector, changes to FE will affect all the others.

Central to the review must be the needs of the learner, the raising of standards, and cost-effectiveness, though any reforms must not be driven solely by cost.

Incorporation, which benefits learners and taxpayers, must be maintained.

Incentives must be introduced to encourage and reward partnerships.

For its part, the FE sector through fforwm is discussing where it sees the future. The starting point is that the status quo is not an option. A lively debate is expected over radical proposals. fforwm is keen to work closely with the Welsh Local Government Association, the Welsh Secondary Schools Association and other educational organisations in taking forward this highly sensitive, controversial agenda. It is one which must be tackled.

Bob Dylan, visiting Wales shortly, predicted in the 1960s that times were a'changing. Our reforms may be less earth-shattering, but they will shape the future education and training needs of young people and adults in Wales for many years to come.

John Graystone is chief executive of fforwm, which represents Wales's FE colleges

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