New roots so sector grows
Colleges were hoping for a little mellow fruitfulness last autumn. Battered by employers who say they are unresponsive, a funding body with no money to pay for their core business of teaching adults, and Sir Andrew Foster telling them they are confused, they would welcome a little balm.
It is to be found in Eight in Ten: Adult Learners in Further Education.
This report has the advantages of having been written by people with real experience of colleges, and sponsored by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which really cares about adult learners. In those respects, it is a rare breed.
In one way, it seems likely to be a stalking horse for the Foster review.
Wrestling with a sensible typology for adult learning, alongside the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Eight in Ten proposes that colleges should concentrate on:
* Access to employability
* Workforce development
* Creating and sustaining cultural value.
This could be seen by some colleges as simply summing up what they do already. However, set alongside the result of NIACE's survey of 100 senior college managers, it looks very radical.
The managers saw the business of further education as being primarily the support of individuals. One in four saw the key issue as the health of their communities and just one-tenth the prosperity of the economy.
Eight in Ten is firmly in the camp calling for further education to strike new roots into its vocational history, not to look backwards towards a long-gone national economy based on local manufacturing, but to secure its place in the skills strategy. The "eight in ten" are the predominant adult population of the colleges, most of whom learn with at least a sidelong glance at their work.
There is a strong protectionist theme in this report. This is scarcely surprising since the extraordinary 8020 funding rule applied to colleges means adult learners are supported on the leftovers of the minority 16 to 18-year-olds.
This report suggests that funding for adults should be a matter of right and should not depend on other priorities. It suggests that meeting the ever-shifting needs of adults properly demands that a minimum of 20 per cent of a college's funding should be spent at its own discretion and accounted for to the Learning and Skills Council.
It rails against the bizarre fact that colleges' core business is shrugged off as "other" education - what's left when the important stuff has been addressed - and calls for quicker introduction of the new credit accumulation and transfer scheme.
All this is solidly justified by following through demographic data, arguably more rigorously and certainly to different effect, than most government publications.
Two in three of the new and replacement job vacancies over the next decade will be filled by adults (for the first half of this decade, the bulge of youngsters who are the cause of the funding shortage for adults will be passing through).
Eight in Ten will be a useful source book of the facts about adult further education, whether or not its main arguments are accepted.
Given that this is the insiders' view of what needs to be done, readers will look for evidence that the report has been realistic in addressing concerns that the colleges are not all that they should be.
To some extent, it passes the test. College leadership is seen as weak in its failure effectively to argue the case for older learners. College staff are urged to "reclaim a sense of agency and authority in curriculum and qualification design, delivery and assessment".
College authorities are recommended to collaborate more effectively with businesses, community organisations, local authorities and local LSCs - but not, surprisingly, with the other private and not-for-profit providers that make up the learning and skills sector. Colleges are told to improve their responsiveness to the issues thrown up by multiculturalism and diversity.
It is here that I find Eight in Ten an opportunity lost, or at least not fully exploited. Change is always more palatable when it is advocated from within.
This was a golden opportunity, offered by NIACE and a strong and knowledgeable chairman in Chris Hughes, to wrest the initiative from outsiders. Too little has been said about structural issues for that to have been achieved.
What should be the relationship between colleges and private providers, given that data in the Government's skills strategy tell us that two-thirds of employers' training expenditure goes to the private sector?
Is it logical to have a learning and skills sector in which some providers are funded on contract and some through government grant, particularly if they are doing many of the same things?
Why are there 257 general further education colleges in England now that the economy is global, not local? Is there a case for radical new approaches to determining their number and interaction, such as that adopted in Australia where a turnover of pound;42m was adopted as the minimum size of a free-standing institution, so that it might be capable of capital renewal, and college heads run the system as members of state boards chaired by a chief executive?
Why are sixth-form colleges regarded as further education institutions when their customers are usually much the same as those in schools?
These are hard questions. Somebody, somewhere will address them. Eight in Ten is eloquent in pressing the case for learners. For that, it deserves attention and praise.
To my disappointment, it stops short of applying its questioning logic to the colleges themselves.