Don Foster Liberal Democrat education and employment spokesman. Problems in schools have monopolised media attention lately. Publicity has centred on discipline, exclusions, school funding cuts, rising class sizes and demoralised staff.
The "Cinderella" of the education service - the further education sector - and all its problems are often forgotten. So it is to the credit of the sector that, despite an 11 per cent efficiency gain and 5 per cent growth over the past year, and in some colleges, continuing difficulties over pay and conditions, the chief inspector's annual report has judged teaching standards in FE and sixth-form colleges satisfactory.
The changes over the past few years have been rapid, massive and controversial. The FE sector is a time bomb waiting to explode - facing a crisis that is inevitable if colleges are run by a market-driven approach and are underfunded.
There is a need for a strategic planning framework at a regional level with some democratic input. Liberal Democrats believe in establishing a tier of regional government. We would place responsibility for the FE sector within that tier. Until it is established, greater powers over funding and policy transferred from the national Further Education Funding Council to the nine regional committees. These should comprise representatives of the colleges, local authorities, employers and training and enterprise councils.
It should be possible to have effective strategic planning to avoid undue course duplication and dog-eat-dog competition. Such planning could lead to cash being made available to fund courses which are vital to meet the economic and skill needs of the particular region. Some changes to the arrangements for selection and election of college governors are also needed.
Such an approach would restore partnership and co-operation between colleges. However, changes need to be more fundamental than this. Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications made long-overdue recommendations - supported by Liberal Democrats - to raise achievement and break down barriers between academic and vocational courses and qualifications. However Dearing only offered half a loaf.
To create a lifelong learning society we need a qualifications framework for all post-14 education and training within which individuals can build up credits in academic and vocational disciplines; a flexible system of learning within which students can mix and match courses from various tertiary institutions and people can come back to update old skills and learn new ones.
This credit-based learning would encourage the development of wider delivery including open and distance learning. Full-time and part-time students could more easily link activities in FE, HE and work-based "off-campus" learning.
This approach would also have enormous consequences for the relationship between schools, the FE sector and HE institutions. The flexible nature of the FE sector will make it a natural ally for the othes. There has already been significant growth in franchising with FE colleges providing elements of degree courses. But franchising is an unsatisfactory mechanism. We would prefer FE colleges to be able to engage in some HE activity through credit accumulation and transfer.
Under our policy each person over 18 would be eligible to register at the learning bank by opening an individual learning account to which the Government, employers and the individual learning would contribute. We promise all students - part-time, full-time, FE, HE - equivalent access to fee and maintenance support. So all students would be eligible for tuition for all courses up to and including degree level, and a student fee entitlement, available to anyone accepted onto an HE course would pay for the equivalent of one year's study and would be renewable, subject to academic progress, for up to four years.
We would also want to see the role of TECs developing. An effective careers service is part of a modern education and training system - we see it working in collaboration with schools, colleges and TECs. Young people aged 16 to 18 who choose not to stay on at school and who do not find a job would be given a training guarantee by local TECs and would receive a government training allowance, subject to regular attendance.
Liberal Democrats also target the post-school sector as one of our priorities for our Pounds 2 billion investment. We would give all 16 to 19-year-olds in work two days education and training, and enable all adults to benefit from further education at a time of their choosing.
As the FE sector forges better and closer links with schools and the HE sector and as the nation wakes up to the need for properly-funded lifetime learning the Liberal Democrats believe there is every reason for optimism for a vibrant FE sector.