Putting meat on the bones of reform

15th October 1999 at 01:00
In the first of his previews of the AOC conference Simon Midgley looks at the changes afoot.

Conference sponsored by The TES.

THE WORLD of further education is once again poised on the brink of momentous change. The past five years may have witnessed a dramatic transformation, but the next few promise even more radical reforms.

The imminent demise of the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils and the arrival of the Learning and Skills Council signify yet another shift.

Next month's Association of Colleges conference in Harrogate - Building A Better Future - offers a chance to debate the issues arising from the White Paper, Learning to Succeed, which will be enshrined in legislation next summer.

David Gibson, the association's chief executive, is hoping that the Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, will use his keynote speech to give principals further guidance on the nature of the proposals.

"What we have to do now is to ensure that individual learners in colleges get a better deal from all these changes," said Mr Gibson.

Sue Dutton, his deputy, said: "We are beginning to see that the legislation is going to be minimalist. There will be a very short set of principles and it will be up to the partners delivering post-16 education to transform these into policy directions and eventual delivery."

In the six years since incorporation, she said, further education colleges had done a tremendous job attracting new learners, with student numbers rising to just under four million from 2.5m in 1989.

Even with the 30 per cent efficiency cuts since 1993, FE now educates more 16 to 18-year-olds than schools, provides education and training to 3.5m adults, delivers 40 per cent of entrants to higher education. It is also the first choice for training for half of all employers.

Now the sector faces a new twin-fold challenge. It has to cater for the extra 700,000 students ministers want to see in education and training over the next two years. And it also has to attempt to engage as many as possible of the 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds identified by the social exclusion unit as currently receiving no training, education nor employment.

Ms Dutton said: "We are now talking about taking that extra step forward. We are moving to almost five million students by 2002."

These students, she added, might not be studying in colleges but at a distance, via the internet, in out-reach centres, in community projects or in partnerships with voluntary organisations.

Mr Gibson said that colleges were already doing some very innovative training work for businesses using distance learning packages.

Major structural changes are ahead for FE funding and planning. Mr Gibson believes it is crucial that colleges should be represented both on the national council and on every one of the 50 local learning and skills councils. "In my view it is fundamental that the sector is represented at every stage."

Another key issue, said Mr Gibson, is to separate inspection and funding. When the demand-led element of funding ceased, many colleges were left short of the income that they had been anticipating. This in turn contributed to a deterioration, he added, but none of the subsequent FEFC inspection reports made any allowances.

In future the new inspectorate ought to have the freedom to criticise funding arrangements from an independent standpoint whenever such strictures were appropriate, he added.

Mr Gibson said he is looking forward to hearing what ministers mean precisely by the divide be-tween 16 to 19-year-old education and adult provision. "In FE and a number of sixth-form colleges the courses and the curriculum dictate who is in the room, not age."

Up until now there had been a lack of planning in the sector at all levels. Now however there was an opportunity for co-ordinating a strategy that met national as well as local needs.

For further information or bookings, call Neil Stewart Associates on 0207 698 3020 (fax 3030) or email info@neilstewartassociates.co.uk or visit the website at www.neilstewartassociates.com

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