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World admiresbest of British

In other countries with no tradition of lifelong learning, the UK's system is envied, says Michael Austin.

It was very cold in Omsk this winter: - 35C and counting. It was also parky in Beijing. What links these two cities, apart from the Trans-Siberian railway and the need to wrap up warm, is their interest in British further education.

Powerful people are studying our system, and liking what they see. In 2005, the Chinese ministry of education commissioned a detailed study of the sector, covering funding, qualifications, institutions and much else. A bright and energetic college principal in Omsk, with the blessing of the regional government, is busy turning his college into a near-clone of a British one.

Nor is it only in a cold climate that the love affair with our FE blooms: in Thailand they have been much taken with our qualifications structure, for example, and have trialled national vocational qualifications in the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores.

In Brazil, workplace learning, as developed in innovative practice in Britain, is seen as a model to be emulated. South Africa has invested in a programme that sends current or future college senior managers for extended periods of learning in UK colleges.

A common thread in these examples is the British Council. The council has, in its sometimes understated way, promoted the strengths of our FE system, and funded events and workshops to explain British FE. And people have listened.

What is a little depressing is that the reputation of the sector is better abroad than at home. It is always nice to be appreciated, but it's sad if you have to go halfway round the world for kind words.

What drives the urge to learn about British FE, and the intention to cherry-pick the best bits as models for development, is the recognition that you need effective vocational education if you want an economy that can compete in global markets.

Just as we have, with some help from the United States and Australia, established English as the international language of trade, so the recognition of the need for international norms in vocational skills has been helped by developments in the pattern and culture of British FE.

The best colleges have for some time been showing the way in working with commerce and industry. By which I don't mean the tradition of day-release and evening classes, useful as they are in raising levels of knowledge and skills. They operate on the assumption that the student must come to the college, that work and learning are separate domains. That is still the pattern in much of the world, and they want to know more about what we have done to move on from there.

Formal links with significant local companies that provide work experience for vocational students, and sponsorship of college facilities, are both old hat. Roman Abramovich, who has a branch of his oil empire in Omsk, sprinkles a little gold dust around.

Much more interesting to the Chinese, the Russians and the rest is the concept of work-based learning and how it is organised, accredited and funded in the UK. The management of work-based learning in the UK has required a total rethink about how colleges work; what new sorts of skills the staff need; how to remunerate staff who work not just away from college but away from home; what happens to the traditional college year with its terms and breaks; what resource back-up remote learning demands.

All these issues have been resolved by successful colleges. And these successes are evidence of that flexibility, that willingness to think out of the box, which overseas admirers of our sector would like to be able to copy.

We perhaps have been taking it for granted that there will be adults in our colleges, often comprising the largest cohort of all. And maybe taking it for granted is the problem: a key reason for the drip-drip of, at best, the indifference and, more often, denigration that has been our lot. In other countries where there is no such tradition, and where continuing, lifelong education is still no more than a hope, they think we are wonderful.

Of course, they don't see all the warts. Unless you have been in a UK college you can't feel the frustrations of the paper-chasing bureaucracy.

It is difficult to imagine the effect of changes in government policies unless you have it done to you, often and abruptly. Defective planning and over-complicated funding regimes limit the effectiveness of the semi-market in which we operate.

But we do not recognise and sufficiently celebrate the good bits. When the Foster report on the future of FE came out, media coverage homed in on the small number of failing colleges, reinforcing received wisdom that the whole sector is under-achieving.

There will always be weaknesses, some only temporary: there is no institution and no national organisation without flaws. The formidable German army, at the height of its powers in the early months of the Second World War, was reckoned to be operating at only 60 per cent of its potential. There were units that were not shaping well, failing supply lines, and some defective leadership.

The curious thing is that, although we all know there are excellent colleges, and although people usually rate their local college highly, this does not translate into admiration for the sector in general. Somehow the whole is less than the sum of the parts. We should listen to the judgments made in Beijing, Omsk, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Sao Paulo. They can't all be wrong.

Michael Austin is a former principal of Accrington and Rossendale college

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