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'Vince Cable's powerful vision could be a seminal moment for FE'

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of 157 Group of FE colleges, writes:

Vince Cable’s recent speech on vocational education at Cambridge University was encouraging and notable in many different ways.

Aside from the obvious irony of his choice of location, Dr Cable presented one of the most coherent accounts of recent policy developments in the fields of FE and HE and set out a vision for how he sees the future. For that alone, the speech is a very positive development.

I believe, if implemented, his vision could herald a truly seminal moment of parity of esteem for vocational and academic delivery systems. A notion very dear to me, having worked for over thirty years in vocational education.

In articulating the critical importance and valuable history of our Further Education system, Dr Cable lends to those of us working in the sector a genuine sense of appreciation. His many examples of excellent practice – and in particular of colleges showing just the spirit of enterprise and engagement with employers and others which they are so often criticised for not displaying – should dispel, once and for all, the narrative of a sector stuck in the dark ages waiting to be told what to do; it's just not the true picture.

And Further Education relishes the opportunities presented by Dr Cable’s vision, linked as they are very clearly to current skills needs. National Colleges offer a vision of aspiration for the country as a whole, and I believe that they can build on the best existing practice to create truly world-class centres of excellence.

The progression of students to university and the advocacy of many more higher apprenticeships also does much to enable a new generation to have more stretching goals for themselves.

Dr Cable rightly acknowledges that a focus on skills is not just about the sexy new industries that may give us extended kudos in the world. He advocates an aspiration to high levels of skill for all, and in doing so lays down a direct challenge to the snobbery inherent in our education system.

He is right to talk about FE and HE as in a parallel relationship rather than a hierarchical one. I have long argued that the key to real success is a strong background in both knowledge and skill, and this cannot be achieved as long as we prize one more than the other. I hope the current unequal power status of HE and FE will be worked through to a sensible solution.

I welcome Dr Cable’s assertion that parallel systems should have parallel entitlements – for FE colleges to award their own qualifications as universities do, or for students in FE to be eligible for maintenance grants and loans as their counterparts in universities are.

A ‘common application system’ may be hard to achieve, but would certainly send a strong signal of intent about how both colleges and universities can set you up for a successful career. Beyond the rhetoric, I hope we see some serious and high impact system changes.

Of course, while the speech offers some real opportunities, it is, at this stage, a vision in the making, and the best visions are always co-created with key stakeholders. Some recent policy initiatives have taken baby steps towards that vision, but this speech calls for something more, something bigger.

As we know, the translation of vision into policy is not an easy one. there will be resistance from those who will perceive their own status to be threatened, and from those who simply do not agree who want to maintain the status quo.

The 157 Group of FE Colleges is developing its own ways of translating this vision into reality, and we are keen to share our thinking with Dr Cable. What I welcome in this inspiring speech is that, despite austerity, Dr Cable holds such a powerful vision for FE.

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