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When Blair and Becks were fab

Further education suffers because of prevailing British attitudes. Not only does there remain a very carefully calibrated hierarchy of worthwhile achievement, which has clearly established routes and which privileges academic success well above any other accomplishment, but there is also an appalling ignorance amongst decision-makers and opinion-formers about what goes on in FE. It is so alien to their experience." So said Helena Kennedy in her 1997 report Learning Works.

So what's new? The report was published just before Labour's resounding first victory seven years ago. How have attitudes changed? Then the talk was of "education, education, education", and "education is the best economic policy we have". Mr Blair was the David Beckham of politics: now, when even David Beckham isn't David Beckham any more, and Mr Blair is looking a little more careworn, what has been achieved?

Well, a great deal. It would be churlish to deny that there is purposeful and coherent strategy behind Department for Education and Skills initiatives, with the key milestones clearly signalled: the Moser report on basic skills and Learning to Succeed in 1999, the Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal in 2000, Success for All in 2002, C21st Skills 2003, and a whole bunch of proposals on e-learning, the voluntary and community sector and higher education. There is a vision of the urgent need to improve skills and to increase competitiveness. The British economy will not sustain current success, nor match leading international performance unless more people's skills can be used. The Government is making the most sustained effort we have ever seen to achieve such an outcome, and it deserves much credit.

And yet, and yet. We are still 25th out of 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in the number of 17-year-olds still in full-time education. Nearly 50 per cent of those completing at age 16 are without five A-C grade GCSEs. We have not made significant progress in persuading those from less-advantaged backgrounds to use HE. Despite expansion of opportunity, the social divides remain as great as ever. It is still depressingly true that for far too many people in our education system that "if at first you don't succeed you don't succeed".

Helena Kennedy's seminal report was as much about social justice as about economic performance: "Education strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, creating participating citizens."

We perhaps need to remind ourselves that it was written in the fag-end of 18 years of Thatcherism. Her report felt like a new dawn. She reminded us of social justice and public service values. They were values that many of us working in FE believed in and had campaigned for.

So why have we not made more progress? Well, there was no new money, and funding was tight: we were still on Tory spending plans. The operating environment was one of competition, not co-operation. The Association of Colleges at that time was a trade union for principals, never a passionate voice for learners. And FE failed to take the opportunities: people were ground down. The Further Education Funding Council was judged to have failed, largely unfairly, because of the very public scandals.

The Learning and Skills Council was born, but the fine rhetoric of David Blunkett's The Learning Age has not been realised. It is time to re-visit the Kennedy agenda, to update it and identify remaining challenges. We need an enthusiastic approach to her New Learning Pathways; we need more support for HE in FE. We need 14-19 reform and we need a credit-based and much more responsive qualifications framework. We need more trust in FE.

"The unique contribution of FE at the heart of a self-perpetuating learning society must be recognised and celebrated."

This is not about colleges. It is about learners, and their life chances.

NIACE is holding a conference in London on June 9, 'Kennedy: 7 years on.'

Baroness Kennedy and Ivan Lewis will speak. Full details from NIACE 0116 2042833

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