Further education is sometimes defined in terms of what it is not – that it is neither school, nor university education. This, in turn, is viewed as a reflection of the general profile of FE – the variety of providers and courses, the prejudices of national commentators and the very breadth of the term 'further education' mean that its strong local reputation often does not translate nationally and it is classified as 'other'.
The Association of Colleges works hard to champion its members as critical to the development of people, skills and knowledge for the nation. We are forming new and exciting partnerships – with charity Edge, for instance, to launch the first ever national celebration of vocational qualifications next month – to increase the effectiveness of our work. But this definition of further education or colleges in terms of the space left unoccupied by schools and universities is not necessarily a bad thing. You could even describe it as a unique selling point.
Put simply, colleges are community leaders. They understand localism like schools, but operate at a scale that allows them to show the way.
While many of the larger and specialist colleges attract students from different regions or parts of the country, in particular for foundation or general degree courses, they remain firmly rooted in their communities as educators, employers, sources of innovation, essential partners for school development and much more. Barnfield College runs more than 480 full or part-time courses (from basic skills to foundation degrees) in Bedfordshire and Luton for 24,000 students. Its role as sponsor of two local academies demonstrates its leading role beyond the confines of its campuses.
Such wider commitments are a feature of colleges. More than 80 per cent have signed up to offer the new diploma qualification by 2009 and many, in leading their consortia, are investing time and energy by helping their partners overcome the difficulties involved in such a significant change. North Hertfordshire College, for instance, has seconded its course leaders to local schools for two days a week to help them prepare for the diplomas.
Many of these successful diploma partnerships are the natural successors to the Increased Flexibility Programme – in which colleges teach more than 100,000 school children aged 14 to 16 for one or two days a week. This dedication to community in terms of curriculum is complemented by the bespoke training developed by colleges for local and regional employers. City College Norwich's successful push to award its own finance qualifications – with financial services being a big employer in Norfolk's county town – is the latest manifestation of this responsiveness to develop the workforce on the doorstep.
Commitment to community extends well beyond the curriculum. It is liberal in scope. Each college has a proud tradition of serving in many different ways, and in leading their communities of learning.
The author is chief executive of the Association of Colleges