The current political buzz suggests a bright future for FE, but without a carefully managed strategy the glory could be shortlived, says Robert Smith
further education is enjoying its first moment in the sun for at least a generation. The much-pitied Cinderella of the education sector is being showered with invitations to the ball, even though she is not as young as she once was.
Those invitations have come in a range of policy documents - the Foster review on the future role of FE colleges, the FE White Paper, the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change prospectus, and the Leitch review of skills. But they have the same message: "Dear FE sector, we have neglected you for too long, and your time has now come."
The sector is already responding. There are efforts of acquisition - such as Newcastle College's bid to run Skelmersdale College 140 miles away.
There is "branding": the much-trumpeted 157 Group of large colleges is pledging to boost the sector's reputation. Even student voices are being heard through the National Learner Panel. What with a renewed political will to close the skills gap between the UK and our competitors and a genuinely new public-service ethos of "personalised learning", it seems the sector is bound for a glorious rebirth.
A note of caution, however. It is my view that the rise of FE is not inevitable. Rather, the sector is at a tipping point, which means it could still go either way. I say this for a number of reasons.
* A lack of confidence among principals College principals are being offered an opportunity to collaborate, to acquire, to set up new ventures, even to regulate their colleges themselves. To a few principals that sounds great and their entrepreneurial fantasies will have been excited. But many will be intimidated. After all, if you have been in FE for any length of time (and many principals have), you have got used to quite a different game - namely, keeping your head down, playing the skills council as cleverly as possible in order to maximise funding, and managing within the college walls.
* Irrational exuberance, also known as 157 If I isolate 157, it's to exemplify a larger point, not to impugn the group. As 157 is in essence an imitation of the Russell Group, this means it will remain inferior by definition, despite being set up precisely to overcome the FE sector's inferiority complex. The sector cannot copy the Russell Group's way to glory, and the hype that surrounds 157 suggests a continuing inner weakness. The appearance of 157 is a form of the irrational exuberance that characterised the dot.com boom. Egged on by Ministers, the sector is on the verge of promising the moon when it is still unsure about delivering some of the basics.
* Treating the sector, not the system The wave of policy initiatives now washing over the sector are essentially efforts at controlling a market. Contestability, collaboration, self-regulation and so on, are pseudo-economic means of creating more favourable conditions for the production of skills in the FE sector. That is all well and good, but because funding and qualifications continue to favour schools and universities, FE will always be constrained in the improvement it can make. In other words, FE belongs to a much wider market, so just fixing the mechanisms in its own sphere will not take you very far.
* The agenda will move on If it is right to say that FE is enjoying a moment in the sun, then the sun will eventually dip beneath the horizon. A change to a Gordon Brown premiership will not alter the keen interest in skills - it will probably augment it - and a Tory administration, if it got in, would be likely to follow suit. But the interest in FE - as opposed to "skills" - is likely to wane and with it the political oomph and sponsorship that makes things happen. FE will need an alternative energy source and a strategy for getting it.
So is this a counsel of despair? Not quite. These are the risks that could stop FE from tipping the right way. Being risks, they require managing. The problem is identifying who owns those risks - precisely because they are systemic.
Robert Smith is an educational consultant with Stanton Marris Consultants