The FE sector's continuing role as the biggest provider of vocational qualifications will be on the agenda at the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Harrogate later this month. Simon Midgley outlines Labour's ambitions in his third conference preview.
THE Government's ambition to modernise the British economy and improve competitiveness in industry makes a well-trained, flexible and innovative workforce a top priority.
One way it hopes to do this is through its new regional development agencies which are intended to foster sustainable economic development, and social and physical regeneration.
From next April, nine of these agencies will co-ordinate the work of local and regional economic, educational and training bodies. They will tackle issues such as investment, regeneration and business support.
A key task will be to develop and influence vocational and educational training in the regions. Compared to other European Union states, UK employees are not very well qualified, especially at intermediate levels. Too few have learned how to learn, and to develop knowledge and skills while at work.
In 1996, nearly one employer in five had not trained any staff in the previous year, and among small firms the figure was one in three.
Given that FE colleges provide approximately half of all vocational qualifications, it is clear that they will must help to deliver the Government's skills training ambitions.
The main question for colleges is how they will relate to the new agencies and help shape regional education and training policies.
The Association of Colleges has been lobbying hard to ensure that further education is represented on the agency boards, but it also wants colleges to create day-to-day contacts at a lower level as well.
The Government recently announced that Pounds 38 million would go to the agencies to help to sort out skill shortages. Clearly this will open up yet another source of funding for education and training programmes.
John Brennan, the association's director of further education development, says that its role is to try to enable colleges to play a central part in executing the agencies' regional skills agendas.
Quite how all this will work out remains to be seen. There is a feeling in the AOC that if an agency identifies a local training need, then ideally it should be able to approach just one organisation to find out how to meet that need.
There are also many questions which need to be answered about the future of some regional education and training providers. Currently the Government is reviewing the role of the country's 74 training and enterprise councils, originally set up to help employers to train their workers.
Some argue that TECs, set up in the early 1990s, have achieved precious little over the years. There is not much evidence that they have increased the volume of employer training and there is still much room for improvement in the achievements of trainees on TEC programmes.
Too many trainees drop out and, of those who stay the course, the number who actually gain qualifications is relatively low. There is also scant evidence of TECs successfully identifying skill shortages and addressing them with appropriate training programmes. While the regional development agencies are intended to play a major strategic role in leading economic regeneration and in devising skills strategies, the role of the TECs will be diminished to that of mere training providers.
Sue Dutton, the AOC's acting chief executive, also asks how meeting the regional skills agenda will sit with FE's many other agendas.
In the long term the arrival of the regional agencies may also raise some major questions about the multiplicity of different education and training programmes used to deliver vocational and skills training. Does it really make sense for public money for such work to be variously channelled via the Further Education Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council, the RDAs and the TECs?
Mr Brennan asks whether it might not make more sense to bring these various initiatives together and re-structure the way in which skills development is supported nationally.