Do not force colleges to abandon the HE ship

July 9, 1999

Though pleased with much of the white paper on post-16 reforms, Colin Flint fears that the government may seriously undermine the further education sector

Further education grew up to fill the interstices of an inadequate national education system. It has become the biggest provider of A levels, the most significant supplier of vocational training and qualifications, the heart of the lifelong learning strategy and of the drive for wider participation, the second biggest provider of higher education, the key to the improvement of basic skills.

It is the only genuinely comprehensive part of the system. It provides opportunity where none existed before. It would be tragic if further education fell victim to the government's white paper for revamping post-16 education.

There is certainly much that is good in Learning to Succeed. We will be able to get away from the nonsense that divides education from training. There will be one funding system and presumably no ring-fencing.

There will be planning, of which we have had very little in the past six years. The Learning and Skills Boards will have the power to vary tariffs for funding to meet local circumstances and to broker mergers between colleges that would improve service and efficiency. We are promised a more commonsense approach to a problem that has caused serious difficulties, that of part-qualifications not being recognised as counting towards success. The Careers Service will be improved. We are promised major savings on the costs of bureaucracy.

It is hard to criticise the white paper as a public policy document. It is a clear progression from The Learning Age, and there can be little argument about the ambitious aims that will be set for post-compulsory education when the Learning and Skills Council and its local arms are in place.

But does it tackle the causes of the serious deficiencies in British education? Does it really provide us with a blueprint for a world-class education system that will meet the needs of all of the people for the 21st century?

The white paper splits colleges down the middle, between work with 16 to 19-year-olds and work with adults. That does not make sense. There will be different funding rules, different inspection systems. We may now have different funding and achievement issues for a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old in the same class.

We are being forced further away from higher education, and that is another mistake. Higher education needs further education, which is more responsive, innovative, vocational, student-centred. There is no recognition of the excellent partnerships that provide a climbing frame of opportunity and progression. One of the successes of the American system arises from the fact that the community colleges are seen as part of higher education, with articulation a properly integrated norm.

Those calling for rigour should apply some to their own thinking about the curriculum. The white paper notes that there is "too much provision that is unsuited to the needs of learners". Too true, Mr Blunkett: much of it is called A level and GCSE. If you believe that initiatives such as GNVQ pilots work well, let us have many more of them. I believe they work too, and they deliver 16-year-olds to further education who have tasted some educational success, who do want to learn and who are much more likely to stay and to achieve. Let us have a real revolutionary go at the 14-18 curriculum and stop tinkering with it.

The white paper backs off the curriculum issues and gives rhetoric instead. And the local education authorities have doubtless also been politicking, staking out lost ground and hanging on to their little sixth forms, many of which do a disservice to young learners.

We have become too used to the new brutalism in inspection regimes to be surprised at being subjected to Ofsted, but it is a mistake. You lose by identifying us too closely with schools. In any event, the burdens of inspection are becoming seriously detrimental to the work of colleges, and we would do better to build some mutual trust. Those 1.5 per cent of colleges that have failed since incorporation had governing bodies that were not too different from the boards that will control the Learning and Skills Councils. Business expertise did not save Derby Wilmorton, Stoke or Halton. Nonetheless, the Department for Education and Employment would do well to recruit from the boards of successful colleges: governors there have at least learned something about the wider world of education.

Two warnings are necessary. Do not mess about with good further education too much, Mr Blunkett. Good general further education colleges are pearls without price in your present system. And to those principals who think they have seen off training and enterprise councils: ask not for whom the bell tolls. It might be for you.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

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