AOC Comment: We recognise the need to go faster and further in the world of FE

I watched Tony Blair deliver his speech in Bournemouth on Tuesday. And there was much in what the Prime Minister said that colleges could agree with. The Prime Minister's ambition that "throughout adult life.... every individual [should have] the chance to fulfil their potential" is one shared by every college principal and lecturer. And his argument that choice and excellence should depend on one's need rather than one's wealth certainly struck a chord.

This year's skills paper showed a Government beginning to move in the right direction. But there are still some unanswered questions and serious unmet challenges if the Prime Minister's aspirations are to become a reality.

We have been promised that every adult who lacks level 2 - or GCSE standard - skills will have a new entitlement to study for their first qualification at that standard. This should narrow our skills gap with other nations. And the new further education maintenance allowance to help adult FE students while they are studying promises vital new support.

But, to follow the Prime Minister's theme, we need to go further and faster. We have the promise of a level 2 entitlement - and we look forward to seeing it developed in practical detail - and we have a commitment to many more adults studying in higher education, at level 4.

However, there is a missing middle ingredient. The white paper made no serious commitment to the needs of level 3 students. These are the technicians and paraprofessionals, who are so important to our economic future and the reform of our public services.

Improving their skills matters as much to our economy as improving basic skills or educating more graduates. Indeed, without more people having level 3 skills, there may not be enough takers for the new foundation degree courses and the vital expansion of higher education.

Furthermore, as we place more emphasis on vocational skills, we mustn't lose sight of the importance of adult and community learning. There are many people who want to develop skills which may help them to contribute more to their neighbourhood, to their families or to their own personal wellbeing. They should still have the chance to do so. Indeed, often by being reintroduced to learning in this way, people gain an appetite for further learning, which translates into a willingness to acquire new and broader work-related skills.

The Prime Minister has said that those who benefit from education should contribute. Many FE students have had to pay fees long before they were introduced in higher education. But employers have a more mixed record.

So I was encouraged to hear Charles Clarke, the education secretary, acknowledge in his conference speech that public and private employers should contribute more towards improving our nation's skills. As he reminded us, employers gain from the training and skills, which build the whole economy.

Colleges are open to the new challenges presented to us. We are embracing the development of greater choice and flexibility to deliver courses that best meet the needs of individual learners and businesses. But this must be a two-way process. Many businesses must be more open to the benefits that a better skilled workforce can bring - and readier to contribute towards the costs of training which after all improves their bottom line.

Tony Blair outlined an impressive vision for cradle-to-grave education this week. Just as colleges will rise to his challenge, so too must our other partners. Employers must recognise that with more choice comes more responsibility. And Government must ensure that everybody can develop their skills at every age, at every stage.

John Brennan is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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