If anybody doubts that colleges will be leading the learning and skills revolution from April, they need only look at the radical changes in Bolton, Lancashire. At the highest political level, agreement was reached to merge the college with the local education authority's adult and community education service.
Unlike many mergers during the 1990s, this recent agreement has nothing to do with cost-cutting or administrative convenience. In the past, some local education authorities have been happy to dump adult education in the laps of colleges in order to be shot of the costs. But Bolton's merger runs deeper; indeed, the new collaboration goes right to the heart of the local community, and a true community college is being born of the partnership.
Nor is this a unique enterprise; other colleges are also developing a similar range of support services designed to extend their role further into the community. We see in Norwich City College the appointment of a voluntary sector studies co-ordinator. This new role goes beyond mere liaison and into training. Furthermore, it is to the colleges that the voluntary sector is now turning for its much-needed traiing.
Despite some bullish remarks from new players in the post-16 pack - industry, community groups and schools - it is clear that these organisations need the colleges more than the colleges need them, not least for training in pedagogic and other essential skills to promote learning. And colleges are proving that they are more than ready to fill the training gap. This has become a recurrent theme in the pages of 'College Manager' over recent months when reporting on partnerships with industry, youth workers and private training providers.
Among many senior managers, politicians and policy-makers, there remains a feeling that the college sector is "a sector that is ill-at-ease with itself". After almost eight years of independence - and with a new learning and skills era looming - this need not be so. One reason is that education, like health, has suffered a barrage of criticisms for the past two decades. Nuggets of praise from politicians are too often presented on a plate of caveats. The transformation of the FE sector this year will be not so much a new beginning for colleges as their coming of age.
Blair's volunteer army, page 4