About 15 or 20 years ago, I remember a key person from the education sector talking confidently about how students in further education would, in the end, no longer go into colleges to be taught face-to-face but learn via technology using modems at home. All learning, he said, would be online. We now know this isn't the reality and is never likely to be because there is no substitute for human interface. Technology complements teaching – it doesn't replace it.
We have become far more sophisticated in our predictions of the future of further education. We no longer make rash generalisations and in regard to many areas, we can make thorough, meticulous forecasts about what lies in store for the sector. The direct result of this is that the future feels not scary but exciting. Many colleges have already taken great leaps into this future. More than that, they are shaping the future themselves.
The Association of College's (AoC) annual conference this year will address this topic, and I know that a range of people – from those at Government level to those at the frontline – will be embracing the issue wholeheartedly centre stage.
Among the biggest challenges for our sector in preparing for the future is becoming increasingly demand-led. Leitch outlined the need in his review and one of the things that the conference will explore is how we can do this. It's not good enough for employers – or indeed colleges – to prattle on about the issue and leave it at that. What are employers' demands? How can colleges best respond both now and in five years' time? It's not always as well defined as it should be. We need to be both visionary about it and also think more about the finer detail.
Our sector must never be accused of being introverted and, as such, the AoC has invited a variety of first class speakers from outside FE to speak at our conference. Bob Geldof has a unique perspective and with his dedicated focus on the world's future, his presence at this year's conference could not be more timely. I suspect that many others, including Jim Knight MP, will also inject dynamism into the conference and its focus.
The number of college principals speaking at this year's conference reveals both the breadth and strength of the passion that is felt towards preparing for the future within the sector itself. It also shows the abilities and intellectual base in FE, which is often ignored.
There is a huge number of exciting things going on that they will be talking about – from use of ICT to teaching enterprise to forging partnerships. We are getting better all the time at sharing good practice and I think the sheer quantity of conference seminars led by those at the frontline illustrates this well.
It seems to me that we are also focusing on diversity this year. Among the seminar topics are a look at what the FE sector is doing Down Under while another looks at how students and staff of all faiths can work together. These issues are key if we are to keep up our reputation as being a socially inclusive sector of education.
I want delegates to leave this year's conference with a reinforced view of the AoC and the importance we have in working for them on behalf of the sector. Above and beyond this, I want people to go away with refreshed sense of vibrancy about FE not only for today but for tomorrow. And perhaps most importantly, I want them to go away having enjoyed it.
John Bingham is Chair of the board of the Association of Colleges