World of work is our real focus

9th November 2007 at 00:00

Paul Head argues that we should keep sight of the importance of jobs- related training. The most powerful mechanism for tackling social exclusion is getting people into work. Our core mission is employability. There has been a rather unquestioned, and in my view under-ambitious, philosophy of "education for its own sake" and a belief that simply participating in learning would somehow create a social good.

We need people to view their participation as a means to achieving success and progression. At our college we continue to cherish the idea that participating in learning is liberating, but it cannot be the sole raison d'etre.

The college aims to guide students towards social mobility and the world of work. The real challenge is to sell the case for that cultural change, away from learning for the sake of it.

It requires a sharp focus on social cohesion and social mobility. If another 10 per cent of our local population were in work, Tottenham in north-east London, where we are based, would be transformed.

Some people in our community may need to begin with English for speakers of other languages, literacy or numeracy at level 1. It is important not to overlook the importance of this - and we should take on board the concept of work related level 1 courses.

A foundation learning tier needs to exist in colleges and that also needs to be made available in the workplace. Some learners need to start right in the basement if they are ever to travel up to the top floor.

Without the provision of level 1 skills in the workplace, we are in danger of removing a crucial level.

It has been suggested that recent changes in the funding regime mean that one million adults have been lost from FE.

At the College of North East London we have managed to keep up our participation rate, but these new adult learners are definitely doing different things from those here five years ago.

The new funding arrangements make it more difficult for us to support people who are taking the first - often quite small - steps.

There is a strong emphasis on fulfilling targets by attracting more learners to full level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications. These targets impose a uniformity of goals across regions. What we need in north London is not the same as what is needed in Cornwall.

We have to find a way of reconciling some of these apparently conflicting drivers we have in the system.

We are still motivated by a public service ethos and set of values but those beliefs are not just confined to the public sector.

It is also a set of values that are linked to commercial opportunity.

We need to cherish the best of that set of public service values, which are focused on personal development and excellence, and not make the mistake of thinking that a commercial approach is the only path.

I am most worried about being sent down the route of cut-throat competition - bums on seats - if that becomes the main driver.

It is fine to take a commercial approach but that is not the resolution. We have to continue to cherish the social purpose.

- Paul Head is principal of the College of North East London and is himself a beneficiary of further education, which gave him a second chance after failing his 11-plus. He is an adviser to the London Employment and Skills Board.

Join the discussion

Two conferences are being organised by Niace, the adult education body, under the title "FE in the 21st-century: What Works for Adults" on November 29 and January 17 at the London Chamber of Commerce, 33 Queen Street, London EC4.

FE Focus is keen to provide a platform for opinions. To contribute letters or simply pass on views or ideas, email

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