Efforts to combat social exclusion will dominate debate at next month's Association of Colleges annual conference in Harrogate. Over the next four weeks Simon Midgely will be setting the scene and looking at how colleges are meeting Government growth targets
Teaching styles, the role of employers in FE and the way colleges are funded are all contentious issues to be debated at the conference.
The nature of the courses which students take also needs to be reformed.
Traditional modes of attendance, namely three terms per year and examinations in June, are too rigid to meet the needs of students who may wish to dip in and out of study. What is required is modular, portable qualifications which can be acquired over time, as and when a student's personal and financial circumstances allow.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has already started the process of rationalising the 14,000 qualifications available in FE and of building pathways between the vocational and academic routes so that students can build up portfolios of experience and qualifications.
Another major need is to engage employers more fully in partnerships with education and training. Employers have to share responsibility for, and be prepared to fund, their employees' training.
Historically colleges have been much better at building relationships with large firms.
Such relationships have developed in rather an unco-ordinated way and often small and medium-sized firms have found it very difficult to release staff for training despite the fact that they are the very firms most in need of "up-skilling".
Sue Dutton, the Association of Colleges' chief executive, also believes that further education needs to be better branded as an education and training provider. She says that it is by no means clear that people understand what FE is all about. One of the strengths of the sector is its diversity. However, such multiplicity means it is sometimes difficult to project a coherent image to learners and industry.
The sector's public standing needs to be enhanced and its role in providing initial and continuing training, second-chance opportunities and lifelong learning clearly delineated. The Government, she added, had started to define and project further education better in its policy statements and in the language that ministers use when talking about the sector. Colleges would then find it easier to build their branding around well-defined principles.
More work also could be done by colleges in marketing their courses collectively in partnership. There could be economies of scale in consortia arrangements at sub-regional level.
Ms Dutton says that FE has the most highly sophisticated statistical analysis of student activity of any educational sector.
However, the down side of this is that it is expensive to administer and it places the emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative justifications of the sector.
"There is a strong case for simplification," Ms Dutton said, "and a revisiting of the purposes of information so that attention is placed rather less on exposure and rather more on the developmental uses of the data."
To illustrate this she suggests that the performance tables are compiled in such a way that they do not adequately reflect further education's level and range of achievement.
The association is currently constructing a handbook of success stories in widening participation.
"At the conference we want to take the sector forward," she added, "by celebrating the positive, productive way it contributes to creating a learning society".