With new money - pound;725 million to be precise - and a new emphasis on regional planning, colleges face a future where collaboration is the key. Martin Whittaker looks at how they are gearing up for the challenge and, opposite, visits the Stafford scheme regarded by ministers as a model approach to partnerhips for adult education
Partnerships between colleges and industry have been reaffirmed by the Government as the way forward for lifelong learning.
Gloucestershire is ahead of the game. The county's FE colleges have won cash for a whole host of projects through partnerships with higher education colleges, the training and enterprise council, the education authority and schools.
Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology (GLOSCAT) has led five of the successful bids.
Vice-principal Brenda Sheils believes this level of collaboration is helping to make the college a key regional player, standing it in good stead for when the regional development agencies are set up in England next April.
The agencies' aims include furthering economic development and regeneration, promoting business and employment, and boosting skills.
"We see the agencies as an opportunity to provide an infrastructure or framework for strategic partnerships. This will enhance the ability of the region to attract further funds, but also avoid duplication and enhance co-ordination," said Ms Sheils. "It's very much what we're looking for."
Now GLOSCAT is concentrating on building its relationship with the Government's South-west Office. "It's that sort of arena that big colleges should be playing in, making sure they've got an ear to the ground and making sure they have the right dialogues with the powerful players."
But not all colleges see regional development agencies in the same light. "A third of the principals I bump into are very cynical, a third think it's wonderful in a slightly naive way," said Ms Shiels.
"Then there's the third group - which we'd put ourselves in - which is whether we actually agree with it or not, it is the shape of things to come and you either join in or you get left behind."
In Manchester the training and enterprise council, local authorities, FE and HE colleges have been working together in a partnership called City Pride.
Ian Lever, Manchester TEC's head of economic development, believes these partnerships will help when the North-west development agency is set up.
"There is a lot of work going on locally and I'm sure the same will be mirrored in other areas of the North-west - organisations talking, saying what's the best way of organising ourselves in order to be able to work effectively with the development agency?" He said Manchester TEC would like to see the new agencies take control of training and enterprise councils.
"We think it would be sensible if they had control of our budgets as well as guiding our planning. We would like and want the RDA to approve our strategy, so that we really can make sure that what we're doing is aligning with other things."
And David Cragg, chief executive of Birmingham and Solihull TEC, welcomes the arrival of a West Midlands agency, believing it will provide the "missing piece of the jigsaw", allowing regional planning and co-ordination of education and training.
"It will be of very considerable benefit to our colleagues in the FE sector with whom we enjoy the best possible working relationship," he said.
But not all corners of FE find such relationships easy. A recent report by the Local Government Association and the Further Education Funding Council - Effective collaboration in post-16 education - highlighted cases of good practice, including examples in Staffordshire (story opposite, p29) Cambridge, East Sussex and Lancashire.
The report also concluded that "there are many areas where collaboration either simply does not happen or where it has never gone beyond the talking stage".
The Local Government Association said that these findings have been redressed by Education Secretary David Blunkett's announcement of a pound;25 million boost to strategic lifelong learning partnerships.
But some colleges still do not see themselves as regional players, said Simon James, the Further Education Development Agency's head of regional and economic development.
"When we asked colleges if economic development was a strategic issue for them, some 80 per cent said yes it was, but 20 per cent by default said no it wasn't.
"It seems that there is still a substantial minority of colleges where, for very understandable reasons, the principal is still looking down at his desk rather than out of the window and seeing what else is going on."
Mr James said that those who have formed strategic partnerships and kept an ear to the ground will benefit with the advent of regionalism.
"It won't just be because they'll get invited to the right parties, but increasingly if they want to access things like European funding, being able to describe yourself as an individual institution in the context of a region is the essential trick that European funders are often looking for, and that will only increase over time."
And what of those that don't look out of the window? "I think it's likely that over time, they'll come to realise that there are opportunities from which they're excluded.
"One of the key functions of a regional devopment agency will be to put together a skills strategy. A lot of regions are already there, developing skills strategies; and FE colleges, the ones that have got it sussed, are in there finding a role for themselves."