Why we deserve 500,000 candles

The further education sector has been celebrating its fifth year of independence. David Melville, chief executive of the FE funding council, explains what has put him in the party mood
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The Independent Online
April 1 1998. A fifth birthday went largely unsung. Yet it was the anniversary of a part of the education system that is now at the heart of the Government's vision of lifelong learning.

When Tony Blair talked of "education, education, education", the middle one of the trilogy, sandwiched between schools and universities, was further education. The further education sector, created through a government declaration of college independence from local authority control, is five years old this month.

But further education's fifth year has been more than a slow preparation for a quiet birthday with friends. It was the year in which we have seen the publication of the Kennedy report on widening participation in further education; the Fryer report on lifelong learning; the Dearing report on higher education; and the Learning Age Green Paper.

The first of these demonstrated further education's unique potential to reach those at the fringes of the educational system, while the second pointed to FE colleges as the only comprehensive platform for lifelong learning. Dearing recognised the sector's distinctive and extensive contribution to higher education, and the fact that there are 200,000 higher-education students studying for their qualifications in FE colleges - more than in all of the universities at the time of the 1963 Robbins report. Last month's Green Paper was littered with references to the central role that further education has to play in Government plans to revolutionise post-school learning for all ages.

Almost in passing, the Green Paper referred to the fact that FE colleges are the majority choice for those staying on at age 16. With 60 per cent of full-time 16-to 18-year-olds, the sector provides the backbone of essential A-level and GNVQ provision for young people. Its achievements are equally spectacular, with further education's 110 sixth-form colleges demonstrating higher pass rates than all school sixth-forms - even than those with selective entry.

The cause for the celebration of the further education sector is not, however, just for its high-quality provision to young people, since they constitute little more than 20 per cent of the four million who each year study in FE colleges. The majority of provision is a diverse mix, ranging from basic living skills for those with learning difficulties through to higher education diplomas and degrees.

The heartland of the local FE college lies in its ability to provide whatever the individual learner needs - and usually in a form and at a time and in a place that suits the learner. Further education is increasingly the first choice of able, well-qualified adults. Colleges recognise that opportunities to study must suit the needs of those who want to learn, reflecting the variety of backgrounds, ages and circumstances of those who make up the student population.

For this reason, further education provides almost all the intermediate- level skills that go into the economy - the level which international skills audits indicate is not being emphasised in Britain.

For all of these reasons among others, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has marked FE's anniversary with a welcome pounds 100m birthday present along with a part of a further pounds 90m to tackle skills shortages and an assured place in the New Deal and the University for Industry.

It is the potential for involvement in these newest of government initiatives which demonstrates the responsiveness of FE colleges to those who need a second chance to learn, either through specific support needs or through innovative delivery methods. The FE colleges provide the vast majority of basic literacy and numeracy classes, as well as reintroducing individuals to learning at all levels and at all ages. But as survey after survey indicates, this educating and updating task is immense and only the further education sector has the scale to tackle it comprehensively.

At its fifth birthday party the FE sector did have much to celebrate, not least its spectacular growth since its birth. So much so that its LEA parents barely recognise it. Some 30 per cent or nearly one million more students than in 1993 study in the colleges this year. Colleges range from small specialist institutions to several with more than 30,000 students enrolling each year. Our first four-year round of inspection showed that quality is being maintained, despite cuts in the unit of resource of 20 per cent since incorporation - this leading to a level of funding well below its school and university counterparts.

College staff and managers have worked with energy and initiative to move further education into the centre of the "education, education, education" mantra.

What further education most welcomed at its fifth birthday party, however - along with the achievements of its students - was the presence of the Prime Minister. Mr Blair came bearing a large cake, not with five candles but 500,000 candles - one for each of the students he has pledged will be added to further and higher education by 2002.

If you missed the fifth birthday party you have plenty of notice for the 10th. Now that one will be spectacular!

The writer is chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.