A message from John Brennan at the Association of Colleges

The best colleges in Europe? Perhaps, but adult education is the key to competitiveness
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The Independent Online

You might think that every EU member state would have its own approach to building its nation's skills stock, which would take into account that country's particular economic circumstances, investment in school education, natural resources, industrial structure and other factors.

But the Lisbon goal, which sets the EU's vocational education and training strategy, very much drives our Government's priorities. Among other goals, the Lisbon strategy for 2000 to 2010 requires member states to achieve the following: 85 per cent of 22-year-olds should have completed upper secondary education (79 per cent in the UK have); no more than 10 per cent of young people should leave school early (17.7 per cent in the UK do); and at least 12.5 per cent of the adult population should participate in lifelong learning (currently 22.9 per cent in the UK). Each of these goals is reflected in our Government's public sector agreements for education and skills.

There is one triumph which our ministers will no doubt want to applaud and commend to their European counterparts. It is the news that colleges have already achieved their target set for 2007: that 72 per cent of their students, young and adult, should achieve all of the qualifications for which they were enrolled.

This makes colleges the best choice for young people who want to gain a qualification at levels two or three (GCSE or A-level equivalent). If schools were measured in a similar way and the benchmark was eight GCSEs at Grade C or above, only one third of pupils would achieve it. If the benchmark was lowered to five GCSEs at Grade C or above, still only one half of all students would make the grade. For those taking the apprenticeship route, only 46 per cent emerge with the NVQ component of the qualification and less than one third with all three components of the apprenticeship framework.

Colleges are almost entirely responsible for raising the nation's level two performance from about 50 per cent upon leaving school to 75 per cent two years later. They are also responsible for 90 per cent of the adults gaining basic skills qualifications, and will be making an even greater contribution to adult level two achievement under the Government's priorities. Colleges are already responsible for more than one half of all level three qualifications in the workforce.

Relying solely on young people joining the workforce to raise the nation's skill stock to a level comparable with the best countries in the world will take some four decades. But as Britain's achievement level among 16 to 19-year-olds ranks lower than other EU nations, it is right that this deficit should be addressed.

With four out of five members of 2015's labour market already working, the key to competitiveness lies with adults. As the Lisbon figures show, this country is actually doing much better statistically than our neighbours in the EU in building adult participation in lifelong learning.

But even so, the poor legacy of equipping adults with the skills needed for success means that we cannot afford to slacken the drive for improvement. With this in mind, we can view only with dismay the prospect of a cut to at least 200,000 adult learning places this September, with possibly the same or more to follow next year.

Unless these problems are addressed, colleges, which provide among the best chance in Europe of educational success for young people and adults, could find in three years time that the high ranking they have secured in the EU league tables for Britain's lifelong learning participation has been eroded.

The writer is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges