Returner learners need quality

November 6, 1998

Much has happened over the last year that has placed post-16 education firmly in the spotlight. New money, new ways of working and the promise of a new future for further and higher education have revitalised the sector.

The financial investment by the government - as well as the promise of another half a million students - is a sure sign that the government is investing heavily in putting learners first, but it is also looking for returns.

Following numerous calls voicing support for further education last year - such as the excellent report by the influential education and employment committee in June - further education is developing into one of the main routes back into learning.

As well as highlighting the changes that are needed within the sector, they also emphasised the important role that further education can play in an inclusive, lifelong learning society. And that is one of the main challenges that lies ahead of us.

The Learning Age green paper, and other initiatives and policies on employment, welfare reform and social inclusion, acknowledge that lifelong learning is essential for future economic prosperity and social cohesion. David Blunkett's announcement in July of an additional Pounds 255 million for the sector signalled the emphasis that the government is placing on further education - but in return, the sector must prove that it is worthy of this investment.

The FEFC will be actively supporting the development of initiatives to widen participation, and deliver the 420,000 extra students to supplement the existing four million.

We have begun to deliver the Kennedy agenda by allocating Pounds 4 million to the "Kennedy partnerships" over two years, and introduced a widening participation factor into the funding methodology worth Pounds 50 million thisd year. It is particularly pleasing that of the 54 widening participation partnerships in place, 24 involve higher education institutions.

Not only do further education colleges offer a host of educational opportunities to their communities; they are a route into higher education.

Indeed, if further education colleges are to widen participation and bring more new students into the sector, then it is sensible to assume that higher education will also benefit.

The latest figures show that, of those whose destinations were recorded, 34 per cent left further education for higher education. Some of our larger colleges each send close to 1,000 students into higher education every year, while at many sixth form colleges, 90 per cent of students enter higher education. Both further and higher education have a lot to gain from a joint commitment to widening participation.

We will be building on our official partnership with the Local Government Association and the TEC National Council. By seeking to establish effective working partnerships with other public, private and voluntary organisations, we hope to encourage better planning of post-16 provision and better use of existing funds. Organisations such as Further Education Development Association and the Association of Colleges have a major part to play.

As a national organisation with a growing regional focus, we welcomed the select committee's report highlighting the role of our regional committees in planning local post-16 provision.

Working with the colleges, universities, local authorities, TECs, and voluntary agencies such as CSV, our objective is to ensure the delivery of lifelong learning at a local level. At present, I believe that there are too many agencies seeking to shape provision.

One of the main challenges facing further education is raising quality and standards, particularly retention and achievement. While we to bring more to return to learn, we have to ensure that what they are coming back to is a high quality of education.

Our inspectorate has introduced a quality improvement strategy to offer guidance and real support where necessary. Within this, there exists college accreditation - where upon achieving accredited status, successful colleges are inspected less often. This gives our inspectors more opportunity to focus their assistance on those colleges who need support.

Improving standards and quality is a long-term objective which we will continue to develop. In the third year of issuing performance indicators, we have also published, for the first time, benchmarking data, and guidance on target-setting.

This is to encourage colleges to respond positively in a way that independent corporations spending public money should. We will expect each college to set realistic but challenging goals, and achieve year-on-year improvement in both retention and achievement. These targets will be published, as will colleges' progress towards them.

David Melville is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council

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