A place for everyone in a joined-up lifelong sector

August 20, 1999

Third in our summer series on education at at century's end, David Melville precicts a seamless post-16 learning environment.

Greater challenges lie ahead for further education, and for post-16 education and training as a whole, but it is worth reviewing the priorities that will play a major role in shaping reforms. We are witness to more collaboration than ever before, more students than ever before, more financial investment, and more coordinated initiatives to ensure a quality experience for all learners.

Since incorporation in 1 993, further education has reinvented itself. In only six years, the sector has gone from competition to collaboration, from the distant to the local. Colleges have had to adapt, with efficiency savings, reduced funding and new target groups. But throughout they have managed to achieve growth ý one-third more students since 1 993 ý and with the change in government, the sector has been rewarded with more investment. The publication two years ago of Learning Works, Baroness Kennedy's report on the future of post-compulsory education, started one of the most important initiatives ever in education. As well as introducing a widening participation factor into a central funding methodology to bring more people into education, it has spurred more collaborative activity. We have allocated more than Pounds 4 million to fund strategic partnerships and are supporting projects to encourage progression between further and higher education. The recent Skills Task Force report, which recommended more vocational provision enabling progression into higher education later, reinforces the growing collaborative work within and between sectors.

In further education we have seen the introduction of a ten-point quality improvement strategy, benchmarking of retention and achievement rates, target setting for improvement, and the naming of beacon colleges as well as the shaming of colleges at the opposite end of the quality spectrum. A large standards fund has been earmarked for quality improvement with ministers taking a direct interest in its development and results. The University for Industry and the introduction of individual learning accounts will depend on, but will also help to develop, a change in public attitudes towards learning.

Both are key initiatives that will help make learning easier, by offering financial incentives and tailoring education requirements. It is essential that learners see the UfI and further, as well as higher, education as a seamless web. There is still a way to go, but the post-16 lifelong learning partnerships are vital in working and identifying priorities for the area. One challenge for the partnerships is to fully involve higher education institutions in their work.

There is a growing climate of partnership and collaboration in an effort to widen participation and raise standards and one where the learner is emerging as the driving force. Further education has a mission to develop its working relationships with other education and employment providers, not just higher education, but all those involved in education and training. The new Learning and Skills Council will have a dramatic influence. Just as the reforms that brought universities and polytechnics together have redefined the latter, so the council will redefine our approach to the whole of further education and training. The white paper's proposals bring together under one national body the whole spectrum of post-16 education and training issues outside higher education. At Pounds 6 billion, it will have the largest budget by far of any government quango. And it will have 50 powerful local arms and councils that will tailor the whole education and training scene in their area to meet clear pointers to the picture by, say, 2006.

We can expect a system that identifies and assesses individuals when they leave the compulsory system and offers the appropriate support as well as the gateway to the choices on offer. We will have moved further down the line of these choices being "transparent", in that there is more coherence in the range of education and training offered by colleges, school sixth forms, private trainers and employers.

The UfI and local versions of Learning Direct will play a central role in promoting learning opportunities, and funding will be much more in the hands of individual learners. All learning providers will have more security in direct access to government funds through the national tariff and will have confidence that local priorities will be nurtured and funded by their local learning and skills councils.

Although tariffs will be set nationally, many funding and policy priorities will be determined locally. The 1 992 Further and Higher Education Act had much to commend it, but more recently its provisions have acted as a brake on the development of lifelong learning.

A future without the vocational/non-vocational split will enable educational principles to be applied to determine how funding flows. This means that adult education and therefore lifelong learning will be mainstreamed into our structures.

Much greater emphasis will be placed on the characteristics and needs of the learner, rather than on the structure and nature of provision. Learning will be facilitated by a unitised further education qualifications structure, and a two-year "associate" or "college" degree will be the centrepiece of higher education provision in further education.

We can expect even more government interest in standards and quality as well as delivery on social exclusion and skills targets. We can expect a much greater focus on continued study post-16, with local centres with this age group as their prime target. A "sixth-form centre" in every town is the most likely expectation.

The further education sector is just six years old. The chances are that in 2007, the government of the day might see what could be gained by creating a truly universal lifelong learning solution ý bringing higher education into the Learning and Skills Council.

David Melville is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.

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