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We need a better image

A national inquiry into adult education was launched this week. Chris Hughes, the chairman, offers his view of how further education must change

At the Association of Colleges' conference in Birmingham in the autumn, a consistent and familiar message kept cropping up. Further education needs a better image with both the Government and the public. John Brennan, Sir Andrew Foster and Alastair Campbell were among those who argued this.

In fact I believe that political capital is high at the moment. FE and vocational training and skills are clear priorities in mainstream political thinking. The Learning and Skills Council's Agenda for Change and the review of FE both put colleges in the limelight.

However, this is not the prevailing view. With yet another stage of structural reform complete, it is time to return to the vexed issue of the purpose of colleges.

In the 1970s, when I was a lecturer at Southgate college, our mission was to offer a high-quality technical education, although of course we did much more.

The vision for tertiary education was always about offering access, opportunity and a second chance. Currently, as Sir Andrew Foster's independent review of FE, launched at the AoC conference, attests, there is a lack of clarity about the fundamental purpose.

FE colleges have an economic mission with inclusive values. By giving the vision an economic basis, the importance of skills, prosperity and employability are emphasised.

The entire learning and skills sector is vital to creating a competitive global economy. Describing FE's purpose in these terms does not underplay the contribution it makes to other agendas across government - neighbourhood renewal, social inclusion and cohesion and health. In particular, it does not underestimate the importance of inclusion.

There is a feeling that the FE brand is weak. Certainly, organisations are moving away from the label towards "learning and skills".

A long-running argument is that whereas schools and universities have distinctive products - GCSEsA-levels (soon the diploma) and degrees - their awards are actually the branded products of the awarding bodies, which "own" and design the products the sector delivers. Would FE colleges have a stronger identity if they designed and awarded their own qualifications?

Colleges lack authority but are excellent at dealing with students, employers and local LSCs. However, the Department for Education and Skills's vision of a self-assessing and self-regulating sector is clearly consistent with the notion of authority.

So how can we redefine colleges in a way that demonstrates what we add and affords the authority required to make a difference? In the 1990s, briefly, the bottom-line was all about growth and money. Recently, performance measures have shifted to a near-obsession with inspection and success rates.

But inspection and results do not give an adequate account of what colleges contribute. We need a more holistic assessment of their contribution and of the public value that colleges create - what they do for individuals, economies and society.

Such an assessment could provide colleges with a more authoritative psychology about themselves, their worth and their economic and public value to society. It would confirm our importance to the Treasury but also attract top staff to the sector, keep them there, and have them serve as advocates for the organisations they work in.

A focus on public value would mean a positive articulation of a clear purpose and represent a serious attempt to move on from the current situation, where the contribution of colleges to society and the economy is hugely underestimated and widely misunderstood.

The FE review provides the opportunity to display clarity of mission, and we would be doing this in a positive way to gain a larger share of the public purse. If we can put this together, then who would argue against investing in FE?

Chris Hughes is former chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency. The inquiry into adult learning in FE was launched by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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