At a conference this week a speaker was promoting co-operation; usually, she suggested, it is allied with an embracing movement of the arms and the use of the word inclusive. The words and gesture received as hearty a laugh as they'd have got from an audience of college principals.
Nevertheless, John Ruskin knew a thing or two, and as he often did, got it about right. We can go on talking until we're blue in the face about the shortage of funds and the destructiveness of competition; but in the end we've got to find some optimism, something positive, from somewhere. Even when the world is in chaos there are some survivors, and perhaps they are always those who believed all along in the possibility of survival if they only did something about it.
Competition certainly hasn't worked - or to be fair it has a limited function, which is to kick-start change. That function performed it becomes as destructive a force as Ruskin thought it was. So we'd better espouse co-operation, collaboration, or to use today's word, partnership. And we should espouse it not because competition hasn't worked, but in a far more positive way, believing that it is the best way forward. The all-embracing arm gesture is melodramatic but makes a point, too. We need to be partners with everyone who has a stake in education, and that means everyone.
If the poverty trap is a trap which only qualifications can get people out of; if being out of work shortens one's life; if being poor means that children will be ill more often than children who are not poor, and miss more school; and if later on few people who haven't got some qualification already go on to get more - and all of these are true - then everyone has a stake in education.
If colleges are good at what we do, we'll survive by concentrating on the students and potential students to whom we must offer what they need, and whom we must help to realise that they do need us if they don't realise it already. We must work with other colleges and with local organisations, colleges, schools, local authorities, employers and charities, to ensure that what is needed is supplied where it is needed and in enough quantity. We must make sure that between us we aren't offering too much of one thing and not enough of another. We must advertise where those we want to attract will see what we are advertising, in language and languages they understand. We must supply the products that our partners want us to supply, but we must consult above all those who will we hope sample the product.
Because above all we must aim to have as partners those who are and will be our students. We owe it to them not to suggest that education and training are things they should have done to them, but to consult them about what they want and why they want it, where they want to be educated, and how and when. If we are to be inclusive and to widen participation, we must consider the views of those who have not so far felt it was worth their while to be included and to participate, as well as those who simply felt we didn't want them.
At the same time, of course, we can't afford to lose, nor would it be right for us to do so, those who are participating now and who are currently included. It would be a good idea to consult them as well about what we are offering; they too may have ideas about how we may improve what we give them. We may be offering parts of the programme which they don't value at all, just because we do. We can't divert funding from the 80 per cent of young people who enter full-time education to those who don't or didn't without adding to the number of those who will need special help in the future. So that would be silly.
John Ruskin had things right again when he was writing about funding: "Whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor." And education and training are, they not, the property of us all?
Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon.