Further education braces itself for yet more reforms, reports Tony Tysome
The government is preparing to announce a package of further education reforms next week that critics say could widen the divide between academic and vocational streams of learning.
Education secretary Estelle Morris is expected to launch a consultation exercise on plans to boost the role of sixth-form colleges, and to encourage FE colleges to play to their vocational strengths.
Sources said the proposals could lead to the creation of more schools for 16 to 19-year-olds set up by local authorities and dedicated sixth-form centres run by FE colleges.
The overall direction of the changes is likely to be towards encouraging more distinctive and specialised post-16 provision: a move hinted at by lifelong learning minister Margaret Hodge in a speech last month at a Social Market Foundation seminar.
Ms Morris, who will unveil her plans at a Learning and Skills Development Agency conference in London on Wednesday, will also discuss measures the government will take to boost standards in further education.
The changes could be backed by a funding boost for colleges, referred to by chancellor Gordon Brown in his speech at the Amicus union conference in Blackpool this week.
Mr Brown said there would be support for the sector in the government's spending review "with resources tied to reform for the colleges supporting 4 million students now in FE".
Worries among college heads that the government was considering hiving off all 16-to-19 provision away from FE colleges and confining them to adult education appeared to have subsided, after insiders suggested that ministers had dropped the idea.
But Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis claimed such a move was still on the cards. He said: "They are going to be talking about expansion of sixth-form colleges. But the problem they have is that they don't know what to do with the rest of 16-to-19 further education. My great worry at the moment is that they are not saying what they are trying to achieve. There is a danger that, at the very least, they will end up reinforcing the academic/vocational divide in the sector."
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said he hoped that there would be full consultation on whatever reforms were proposed and that the sector would be given sufficient time to implement any changes.
"Having already reorganised the sector under the Learning and Skills Council, we have to make sure the LSC has time to deliver its targets. We need the LSC to get into gear before there is more restructuring," he said.
The Learning and Skills Council, which has a budget of £7.3 billion for 2002-03, took over responsibility for all post-16 education and training from April last year. Most of its efforts have so far been directed towards creating a more unified sector with a new funding and quality regime.
* Margaret Hodge has pledged to tackle "uneven quality", in work-based learning, after a Learning and Skills Development Agency report highlighted low success rates among people who learn in the workplace.
Inspectors have suggested that there needs to be better understanding of quality improvement processes and better guidance for providers of work-based learning.
Work-based learning is a key part of the government's strategy for widening participation in further education.