Many employers are sceptical about the new foundation degrees. But for Claire Smith they are the best way to a dream job. Anna Leigh reports

Flicking through a magazine one day, Claire Smith saw an ad for her ideal job. The post, run by the Jockey Club, involved the rehabilitation and career development of retired jockeys. As a regional development officer with Barclays Bank, Claire already had the necessary skills and experience in management to do the job. What she lacked, though, was expertise on "the horsey side of things".

At first, an HND seemed the obvious choice to plug the gaps. But, after discussing her options with lecturers at Warwickshire College, she realised that a foundation degree in equine studies would cover more ground and offer greater flexibility in what she wanted to study.

Claire, 41, is one of the success stories of the foundation degrees introduced last year. She is now entering the second year of her course, and plans to carry on to do a full BSc, which she hopes to complete, part-time, within five years. She is a prime example of how foundation degrees can give people the vocational help they need and get them involved in higher education.

Luckily, her employers allow her the time off to fit in seminars as required. She does most of the course by distance-learning, and attends weekend seminars in practical work at the college several times a year. "Because I already have experience in business and management, I have been able to concentrate on the horsey side of things, rather than the business and administrative side - and study such subjects as horse nutrition and anatomy, and how horses perform when they are racing," she says. "The degree has really given me an opportunity to work long-term towards my dreams and aspirations. Once I have this qualification under my belt, I will be able to apply for jobs with confidence."

Ben Law, 29, who studied at St Helens College in Merseyside, is another success story. He was forced to give up commercial deep-sea diving because of a sports injury, and needed to rethink his career plans quickly. So he enrolled on a foundation degree in construction, and has just graduated with distinction. He now plans to continue with the course towards a full BSc Hons in building surveying at the University of Salford. So he, too, has been won over to higher education through further education.

To date - thanks to his new qualification, he believes - he has been offered every job he has applied for, and is now working as a building control surveyor with Warrington council.

"We were among the guinea pigs for foundation degrees, but I just can't speak highly enough either of the course content or the college itself," he says. "I needed as smooth and fast a transition into a new working life as possible after having to give up my other job so suddenly, and the course gave me all that employers demand and what I required."

Ben liked the small classes. And the tutors were highly qualified in the areas they were teaching, he says. "I really needed that level of support and guidance having returned to full-time education after 10 years."

Ben and Claire may be enthusiastic, but many employers are wary about the new qualifications. They do not know what they cover, nor how rigorous they are. Ben, however, shrugs off such concerns: "I have found that, once employers realise how varied and comprehensive the course is, they know they are getting someone qualified to a high level.

"So many career options now seem to be open to me. I have worked as a site engineer and as a quantity surveyor with a rail company, and now I have what I consider to be my perfect job, which will allow me to continue with the degree."

Mary Bennett used her foundation course as a way of taking some tough decisions about her life. At the age of 20 she had no idea what to do. Instead, she used a foundation course as a "taster", and narrowed her options down to physiotherapy or teaching PE.

Her foundation degree in sports studies at Newcastle College gave her an idea what the subject was all about, without committing her to the time and expense of a full three-year degree course, she says. "I will probably go on to do the final year at Northumbria University, but I really needed to do the foundation course first because I wasn't sure what I wanted.

"The fact that I was doing it at a further education college also appealed. I wasn't ready to go to university, and I needed the support and guidance of someone standing over me to make sure I was doing it, and doing it right. FE colleges can offer that because they are used to dealing with younger students, who might be doing GCSE re-sits or A-levels."

Despite the success stories, Rick Firth, director of vocational education with the exam board Edexcel, believes more work still needs to be done to convince employers of the value of the qualification.

The board is working on providing its own foundation programmes in engineering, construction and IT, but it wants to see the Government do more to plug the whole concept of the two-year course. "Unless some money is put into trying to create a better profile for foundation degrees, they may not get the take-up that the Government is looking for," says Firth. "This year, about 70,000 students will study for HNDs. If foundation degrees are going to attract the same numbers, then both students and employers need more information about them."

Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, believes colleges are doing a good job in delivering foundation degrees, but she also fears that graduates may not get the recognition they deserve from employers. "There are too many degrees already that are of little worth in terms of employability," she says. "I hope foundation degree graduates will not end up bitterly disappointed."

But David Gibson, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, hails the courses as a major success story for the Government. The positive experiences of many students - just like Claire, Ben and Mary - reflect the speed at which foundation degrees are becoming accepted by potential students and in the workplace, Gibson believes.

Not surprisingly, he thinks FE colleges are an integral part of that success in ensuring the accessibility and employer focus of the new degrees. "The colleges bring to foundation degrees experience in supporting and building the confidence of mature students, flexibility in timetabling and delivery, links with local employers and experience in workplace learning and assessment," he says.

But for the success story to continue, it is crucial that colleges have access to the student numbers allocated for foundation degree growth, he adds.