Now we've got parity, it's time for FE to shine

10th December 2010 at 00:00

The age-old rivalry between schools and colleges may have been tempered by the publication of Michael Gove's schools white paper last week. Looking beyond the headlines, the Coalition's new education policy could offer colleges the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with schools. It balances funding, creates a way to compare schools and colleges directly, and provides a blueprint for how college-based vocational qualifications can develop into a pathway as valued as A- levels.

The disparity between 16-19 funding for FE and school sixth forms has been a source of bitterness in colleges for years. And understandably so - FE colleges take more students from poorer backgrounds and offer a wider variety of courses than school sixth forms, so it makes little sense that funding has been uneven.

The Coalition's way to redress this funding gap, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not to raise the FE budget, but to cut the budget from sixth forms. While no one likes to see education budgets decrease, the move to bring parity to funding is fair and will be welcomed by some.

Beyond funding levels, Mr Gove set out his plan to create equal performance measures for all 16-19 institutions, giving students and parents a way to make informed decisions about their local schools or colleges. Comparing like for like is a noble goal, but the Government should ensure its measurement criteria take account of the inherent differences between schools and colleges.

With schools predominantly offering A-levels, for which the pass rate is close to 100 per cent, and colleges predominantly offering vocational options, for which the pass rate is far lower, there is a real risk that colleges will be at an unfair disadvantage in any universal performance measure. Providing these differences are taken into account, I'm confident that colleges will do well. Indeed, this is a great opportunity for colleges to show how good they are at what they do.

The education white paper is also infused with the Coalition's enthusiasm for creating a system of high-quality vocational education. This approach is a welcome change from the recent past, where even the word "vocational" was out of favour and seen too often as synonymous with provision for those less able or willing. This determination to reform vocational education is apparent in the commitment to create more university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools.

UTCs are technical academies for 14 to 19-year-olds. Sponsored by local universities, UTCs have access to higher education curricula, expertise and facilities. They are intended to support progression from vocational courses to higher education, and to invigorate learning by exposing 14- year-olds to technical courses taught by people with practical industry experience.

Studio schools, instead of being aligned to a university, have an entrepreneurial focus and are more likely to work alongside local employers. Aimed at re-engaging those young people who have become disaffected with the academic route, the white paper confirms that vocational learning is no longer a dirty word.

These new institutions present an opportunity for FE to play to its strengths in technical and vocational education. Colleges have the opportunity to develop high-quality vocational routes that can be successful on their own terms, instead of having to live up to, or be coupled with, academic content. It's measures like these that will see vocational education held in the esteem which it needs to be if the "technician class" spoken about so often is to become a reality.

The reforms of the schools white paper should be celebrated by the FE sector. With the spotlight back on technical skills and vocational learning, colleges have a rare opportunity to demonstrate just now much value they add to individuals and society.

John Stone is chief executive of LSN.

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