We must celebrate birth of beacons of excellence;FE Focus

14th May 1999 at 01:00
The top colleges are setting an example that all must strive to emulate, says the minister for further and higher education.

THIS week 10 colleges were hailed as beacons of excellence. These institutions have earned their new status because they are dynamic colleges which generate strong confidence from their local communities.

This is something we must celebrate: these colleges are shining examples of what we want to see in all parts of the education service. Excellence for all students is the paramount objective.

Some colleges - Knowsley and Lewisham are obvious examples - are doing a truly tremendous job in difficult areas.

The Knowsley area near Liverpool has some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country: 40 per cent of children in households with no working adult. Less than a quarter of pupils gain five good GCSEs. Lewisham in south London has similar profiles.

Yet these colleges have high achievement and retention rates. They succeed by caring about the achievement of each and every student. They have high expectations of them, they set rigorous but realistic targets and they support students properly when they need it most.

The "secret" formula is hard work and straightforward good practice throughout the college by strong determined leadership. All colleges should be capable of such success.

Moreover, these examples dispel the myth - which I still occasionally hear in my meetings with further education audiences - that you cannot simultaneously widen participation and raise levels of achievement.

Clearly you can. Many colleagues throughout the college sector will have shared my frustration and anger at the way colleges such as Bilston and Wirral have failed their communities and students - young and old - in need of qualifications. These colleges not only failed to exercise proper financial accountability. They failed to deliver decent standards of education and training provision, revealing shocking inadequacies in basic teaching.

There are other colleges with serious weaknesses. We are determined that these should be turned around to serve young and old alike.

We will expect to see vigorous action plans for recovery to a given timetable. Principals, governors, all staff - indeed all involved in further education - now need to renew their efforts to convince local communities that further education is worthwhile and that the Bilstons and Wirrals are an unrepresentative minority, part of the legacy this Government inherited.

Good practice and excellence exists in many FE colleges. All institutions should look to the Beacon Colleges and begin to scrutinise their own practices. This may be painful for some because the standards of the best are not yet widespread. Some colleges are quietly coasting, heads down. Perhaps they are making sure that their finances are sound enough, but are hardly setting the world on fire with an imaginative and dynamic curriculum.

Each college must be honest with itself. Do students get the best possible deal after they enrol? Is all provision as effective as possible? Is student support flexible and well targeted? Is absenteeism followed up or do students drift away and drop out?

We should ask whether colleges can demonstrate the high standards needed to convince the parents of a 15-year-old considering options for next year that their institute's courses and pastoral support could bring that student every chance of success - access to higher education or entry to a modern apprenticeship, for example. Can colleges also convince adults with basic skills needs that what they provide can make a genuine difference to their prospects by helping to get them qualified?

Those colleges which cannot yet match their standards with the best should be looking now to secure rapid improvements. This should, ideally, happen before September. Certainly within the next year.

The Government has provided pound;115 million of new money in the FE Standards Fund to promote such action. I look forward to announcing more beacon colleges in the future.

Similarly, I look forward to hearing how all colleges are raising their game in the drive to give students the best possible deal.

FE colleges can convince the world that further education is a thoroughly worthwhile venture. The best way to do that is to become a beacon.

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