David Melville welcomes the changes in the government's Learning to Succeed white paper
A mere 12 months has seen a sea change in our view of the future of post-16 education and training. Last year, I wrote of the prospect of developing new ways of working and of how new money would change the way further education works with students, partners and all other providers.
Since the summer, all thoughts turned to the challenges following the post-16 review and the Learning to Succeed white paper. The government's commitment of extra money and students to post-16 education last year means we are witnessing an important structural change with extensive (and positive) implications.
The changes provide an opportunity to build on the good work that is being and has been done.
The Further Education Funding Council warmly welcomed the white paper and the benefits in rationalising the system to students and would-be students.
The number of students in further and higher education is rising, as are further education achievement rates. We have seen a rise in further education students' progress into higher education, with more than 17 per cent of students stating it as their destination each year.
A welcome development is an infrastructure that will increase coordinated planning and deliver an integrated funding system for all further education and training - as well as local flexibility to cater for skills needs.
The new learning and skills council offers this for the first time. Collaboration and partnership have been part of everyday life for colleges since 1997. This will now be taken further as an integral working practice.
The strictures on avoiding wasteful competition and requiring all providers in an area to work together to achieve common goals will apply across all post-16 education and training. This will include colleges and private training providers - an interesting and challenging prospect.
The FEFC is pleased to see extensive employer involvement in the national and local learning and skills councils. A key objective is to ensure the education and training employers demand are being met.
Local learning and skills councils will have a key role to play in this respect, working closely with existing partnerships and organisations to identify skills needs and ensure they are met.
I have only touched the surface of the arrangements. It is essential that the changes improve our ability to address priorities - all of which will benefit the student - raising quality and standards, widening participation and tackling social exclusion, as well as increasing numbers.
By integrating college expertise with that of private training providers and voluntary organisations, the student will have even more opportunities to return to learning. We are looking to build on existing schemes as we move toward April 2001.
As well as allocating extra funds for student growth and widening participation, we have implemented a series of pilot projects that will help us identify a way to tackle the abolition of the vocational/non-vocational split.
The skills task force report recommendation for more vocational provision enabling progress into higher education reinforces the importance of collaborative work.
This joined-up approach to tackling social inclusion and skills needs across the public sector bring further challenges. To ensure progress is not restricted by social background or a vocational choice, higher and further education must work together.
Indeed, by working with the Higher Education Funding Council, we are funding pilot projects in 1999-2000 that will open pathways and encourage progress from one sector to the other. The projects are a vital step in tackling social exclusion by helping those from under-represented groups to study. Projects in the pipeline include higher education summer schools, raising ethnic participation and local credit frameworks.
Looking at the possibilities for doing away with traditional barriers is essential because post-16 education and training is central to the creation of an inclusive, learning society.
Yet quality must not suffer. Throughout post-16 education and training many are performing to the highest standard, including colleges. We have a government commitment to improving quality via the standards fund.
Following the introduction of the quality-improvement strategy for further education, 12 colleges have achieved accredited status.
The creation of the learning and skills council will have a dramatic effect on the post-16 sector - not least to redefine it more widely. The multiple tasks of meeting the needs of individuals at age 16, of meeting skills needs, and developing and promoting lifelong learning will be more coordinated and challenging. To achieve all of this, cooperation between the sectors will be essential.
David Melville is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council for England.