Covert operations in our fight to improve lives

June 25, 2004

Colleges deserve praise for giving people a second chance by bringing them into higher education, says John Moverley.

The numbers of people entering higher education through further education continue to grow. Although changes in methodology and requirements from funding providers have been seemingly continuous in recent years, colleges have still secured significant increases in higher education numbers.

The role of colleges has been pivotal, but it is often unnoticed and undervalued. All the same, higher education by stealth has happened. Stealth can be defined as a cunning or underhand procedure, but this is certainly not what is meant here. What it means, and what colleges have achieved, is to open opportunities for many more people to fulfil their potential and add to the national skills base. This brings with it a need for more integration in the planning of further and higher education - both are important and both need resourcing equally to undertake this important task.

All of us in education want to provide the opportunity for everyone to realise their potential, whatever their background, origins or initial qualifications. When my generation entered university in the 1960s, opportunities were limited. Some students had the required A levels, but others did not - perhaps they had not liked school or had lacked motivation. Some chose to follow technical qualifications at 16. The fact was that they lacked the gold star of A levels, so university entry was not a real option.

Today, vocational qualifications are increasingly recognised as valid for entry to higher education. There is an alternative to A levels. If we are truly committed to widening participation and increasing access, we must modernise progression routes. The flexibility of access routes now available through further education allows many adults to re-engage in formal education.

Recent announcements indicate that this defined "other provision", an unfortunate term, may not always be fully funded in future. Yet it can be the route that allows adults a second chance not just to succeed in further education but to progress to higher education.

As principal of a specialist college serving the land-based sector, I can illustrate the point with two examples.

The first student (I will call him Steve) was brought up in a caring but relatively poor environment. Distractions around him and a lack of motivation meant he often missed school, and at 15 it was suggested that he should seek a job at 16 - his education was finished. Steve enrolled on what was then a Youth Training Scheme linked to horticulture. Suddenly, he was doing something that he liked and that motivated him.

He progressed to a national diploma, then transferred to a higher national diploma. Despite mounting debts, which he offset by working in vacation time, he again succeeded and topped up the HND with a bridging course and further study to a degree, and a good one at that.

Steve is now on his way to a very good career. Further education ignited his interest and provided the pathway to higher education. He adopted what was then a less conventional route - higher education by stealth.

A second example is Sue, who did well at school and A levels. She coped, but on starting her course she grew concerned about her choice of subjects and whether she really wanted to complete. She lost her motivation. Her real love was animals, but she had convinced herself that there were no real careers in such an option.

In February of her first year, she paid a visit to an open day at the college. She immediately saw that there were real opportunities - a degree in animal behaviour or veterinary nursing - and good career options afterwards. Bravely, and not without some thought, she left school and transferred to a national diploma in animal care. She will soon graduate with a degree and the promise of an excellent job.

Education is about transforming lives. The old proverb says: "If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees." Well, if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people. The offerings of schools, further and higher education are all important. Every individual is different and will respond to different approaches, but each deserves the full opportunity to achieve their potential.

The growth of higher education in further education has been significant and substantial. I hope that in the next five years it will not be so stealthy but will be highly praised and recognised - and will give more and more individuals the chance to reach their goals and achieve their potential.

John Moverley is principal of Myerscough College.

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