Further education is often regarded as the underdog of learning, yet it is a sector where much regeneration of communities occurs. reports on how top government ministers are hoping to raise its profile through the STARAwards
It wasn't quite the road to Damascus, but the Government minister in charge of colleges had his very own moment of truth on the road to Falmouth. Kim Howells has never forgotten the poverty in parts of the Cornwall peninsula he visited in the early 1990s.
"I was shocked at how poor it looked. Tin mining was defunct. The huge Holman compressor factory in Camborne was shut. The interior of that county was a wasteland," he says.
It was an experience that stayed with him. And the learning and skills awards scheme the minister now backs is not so very far removed from that bitterness of lay-offs and closed factory gates. His ambition for the STAR Awards is to tie it in even more closely with communities laid waste by economic shifts and shakes. "I would like to see an award specifically for sustainable regeneration where some remarkable work is being done," says Dr Howells, minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher education.
Since his visit, the Camborne School of Mining has helped revive the fortunes of the local community, and the Eden project has turned an area of deprivation into a high-skill, high-wage economy. "People often fail to realise how the people who work in the college, university and training groups are central to such regeneration," says Dr Howells, who has recently visited colleges and community projects in Cornwall, Liverpool and Somerset.
Pivotal to this is the notion of working in partnership. In Bridgwater, Somerset, a regional approach to regeneration has led to Bath university extending its chemistry faculty into the FE college, creating new opportunities for 70 students. "We see further education as being at the heart of all such work. It takes apprenticeship kids from areas such as Cornwall and Liverpool through foundation degrees and full honours.
Colleges are the great repositories of accumulated skills and wisdom."
For Dr Howells, those who nominate candidates for the prestigious STAR Awards are just as much champions as those who win. Indeed, he insists that without them there would be no recognition, no awards and no such celebrations for the colleges, companies and communities involved.
So he wants a much higher profile given to the nominating system and wider recognition of where the talent lies. He believes nominating should not be left to friends, colleagues and departmental staff. Everyone, from college support staff to top officials in the regional development agencies, should be focused on what these awards are about, he said.
The extension of further education into a wider "learning and skills sector" is uppermost in the mind of Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills. He wants the STAR Awards to raise the profile of a sector that, in the eyes of the public, is only two or three years old.
That sector came into being in 2002 when the strategy paper Success for All spelled out the common goals post-16 for colleges, adult and community education centres and independent training providers.
"We can all envisage the FE sector. The college is the nearest thing in our minds to the school and university. So we find ourselves identifying with it, whereas the learning and skills sector is fluid," said Mr Normington.
"Governments don't actually define sectors. It is more a question of whether there is a community of interests out there. But this government has gone further than any in an attempt to define that sector because it wished to invest in it."
However, sectors are not bricks and mortar, government statutes and state-funded programmes. "They are the people, and the STAR Awards help to define nationally and in personal terms what those people do. I am delighted that there seems to have been such an interest in and welcome for the awards so quickly," he said.
He also noted that there was far less cynicism than there was for the National Teaching Awards for schools, launched some years earlier in a blaze of publicity by film producer Lord David Puttnam CBE.
Sir David Normington identified three reasons. First, the public was possibly less cynical about government investment than it has been seven years ago. Second, the sector "owned and helped shape" the STAR Awards scheme, it was not imposed on people. Third, the move from a career civil service to one that recruits specialists brought top college and training managers into the corridors of power in Sanctuary Building and Whitehall.
For example, former FE inspector and principal of Leicester College, Janice Shiner, is DfES director general for Lifelong Learning.
Some would argue that the sector is crowded with prestigious awards, notably the Skills Olympics. "But the STAR Awards is different," said Sir David. "It gives recognition to the achievements of the workforce, which the Skills Olympics does only incidentally."
For both Dr Howells and Sir David Normington, the next important step is to raise the profile of the awards. Dr Howells said: "I am writing to every MP to ask what they are doing to get the machine rolling in their constituencies."
"In the next phase of the awards the biggest gains will be made if we get more and more high profile people behind it saying what the sector has done for them," said Sir David.
Recently, actor and writer Stephen Fry spoke of how further education put him back on the ladder to success.
For the Department for Education and Skills, the search is now on for others to speak out for the STAR Awards.