Because there are many post-16 providers in Leicester, historically the colleges have tended to specialise. My college concentrates exclusively on vocational qualifications in traditional local industries to a very wide ability range. In other words, by and large, academic high-fliers go somewhere else.
Over the past term we have held our awards evenings in the main industry areas we cover. Even after seven years I still get a buzz out of watching the shy, awkward teenager or the all-dressed-up adult going on to the stage, knowing that for both of them this is probably the first serious qualification of any value they have ever achieved.
Before being allowed to leave, the audience is subjected to a speech by me. I tell them that, through the qualifications they have achieved, their career prospects will be fundamentally transformed. By their own efforts they have assured a decent lifestyle and kept themselves out of the "underclass".
Certain unpleasant realities are dawning, however. Employment in a number of traditional local industries does not seem to be recovering, despite the end of Thatcherism. We see the globalisation of component manufacture and the whole- scale export of information-based jobs. Prefabrication is removing permanently the need for some craft skills.
We have recently come to the end of the European Year of Lifelong Learning. At one time this would have evoked images of liberal education, sport and recreation - all things industry-based colleges like mine don't do much of. However, the hard reality is that our proud prizewinners have skills for occupations which may well not exist in 10 or 15 years' times. Are we really taking this on board?
At present we produce a lot of national vocational qualifications. These satisfy the conditions of being progressive and flexible in that they can be added to throughout life. But what happens if whole occupational areas disappear? Bluntly, as matters stand, learners have to start again. What they need to know is that their skills and qualifications can, as far as possible, be used in new vocational contexts. Rather than a ladder of opportunity, we badly need a network where movement is possible sideways as well as upwards.
When our prizewinners have to retrain in five, 10 or 15 years' time, it will quite possibly be at a level that, at present, we would call higher education. However, outside the "Derbyshire Federation" - where many schools, colleges and universities share a common local currency for qualifications - there seems very little fit between the modular systems of accreditation used in further education and the credit accumulation and transfer systems used in HE.
Sadly, Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for the reform of post-16 qualifications seem to focus almost entirely on the education of the 16 to 21 age group and have little to say about the long-term implications of lifelong learning. Hopefully, there will eventually be a national vision by Government which will create the administrative, funding and qualifications framework to meet the needs of learners. Meanwhile, what do we do?
First, we need to have a view of career relevance that is less narrowly defined than tradition, the NVQ system and the Further Education Funding Council funding methodology would press us to suppose. This would include the core skills of literacy, numeracy and IT, but also the less easily defined personal and interpersonal skills, not least self-confidence in studying and achieving career change. Hard to achieve under current funding pressures.
Second, at local level we need to be building collaborative links with schools, other FE providers, universities, other providers of adult education, training and enterprise councils, the Careers Service, local education authorities and major employers. We need to find a way of pooling our information and expertise to understand and meet the needs of the whole population. Again, a tall order in an environment of intense competition.
None of this will avoid the need for me to rewrite my standard awards evening speech. However, if we really can offer a lifelong service, I might be better able to look the winners in the eye as I shake their hand.
Tony Warren is principal of Leicester South Fields College