Because you're worth it

The role of further education colleges remains fuzzy. But with a little love and money, they could b

The enthusiast to avoid is anyone who has accepted a government commission to do something about further education. Invariably they have had no previous acquaintance with this world, having themselves floated from good school to good university. But once they have seen the enormous range of people served and the good done in these colleges, they are bedazzled.The widespread ignorance of further education almost makes them cross.

In many respects, further education is a marvellous world. There are undeniably wonderful people working in it doing wonderful things for rates of pay that almost disgrace a sweatshop. But it is the second-chance ethos that really tugs at the tear glands of the newcomer: colleges embracing 16-year-olds who have sidled through 11 years of schooling without scoring a single academic achievement and putting them back on track; picking up adults who failed to retain anything at school and teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic; nurturing other adults - often 11-plus casualties who didn't fulfil their potentials at school - and coaxing them into university.

This remedial service that colleges perform, immeasurably important though it is, is only part of the story. And here lies another of further education's problems: the impossibility of defining it in a simple positive phrase on its own terms. The only way to keep a description to one side of A4 is to take a negative approach and define further education by what it isn't. It isn't schools and it isn't universities.

This fuzzy image of a sector that somehow fills in the large gaps between schools and universities and salvages their casualties - that is, those who have been failed by one and haven't a prayer of getting into the other - lacks the bold, clear impact that organisations these days are supposed to have.

This government believes that it can make a more credible claim than previous administrations to value further education colleges and recognise their roles. These it sees as fuelling the economy with skills and making Britain a fairer place by persuading people who would otherwise shun education to acquire qualifications that enable them to get skilled employment.

There is some justification in the claim. Labour has put more cash in, though is has squeezed more work out of colleges. Some of its ministers have experienced further education. The last education secretary but two, David Blunkett, even taught in a college. But Labour's entitlement to call itself further education's best friend is marred by a continuing anomaly. It has persisted with paying out more for young people who stay on at school to study their A-levels than for those who choose to do them in colleges. And for some youngsters, whose schools will not allow them back to do A-levels because of their GCSE results, there is no choice.

Three years ago, the then further education minister Margaret Hodge said that Labour would close this funding gap, which is generally agreed to stand at about 10 per cent, but nothing significant has been done to honour that promise.

All the time that schools and colleges were funded via separate bodies, excuses could be made for the gap. It could be ascribed to historic differences and bureaucratic quirks. But for the past three years, money to school sixth-forms and to colleges has flowed from the same source, the Learning and Skills Council, a quango set up by Labour to fund all post-16 education and training outside universities.

Closing the gap would give tremendous symbolic clout to Labour's claims to cherish colleges. Does the government's slowness to act therefore indicate some intention to take A-levels out of further education colleges for the 16- to 19-year-old age group in order to make a clearer distinction between colleges and schools? Does it envisage a sharper and more simple identity for these colleges as places that concentrate solely on vocational courses?

Such a radical change would appear unlikely. More young people in this age group study for A-levels in colleges than in schools. But Labour does appear disenchanted with the general idea of the all-things-to-all people agenda of further education colleges. As with schools, it has tried to encourage specialisation, and colleges have responded enthusiastically to the invitation to become "centres of vocational excellence".

Labour says that it wants colleges to teach the skills that industry needs in order to stay competitive in the global economy. It would especially like the further education sector to play a full role in addressing the skills shortages that it believes are keeping British productivity levels behind those in French and German industry.

The government's funding, however, tells a different story. It is sticking more doggedly than ever to supporting further education's remedial role in two of its three funding priorities. It will provide public cash for adults wanting to acquire "basic skills" - literacy, numeracy and basic computer techniques. It will also pay for adults who failed to get a "level 2 qualification" - 5 GCSEs grades A*-C, or their equivalent - at school to have the necessary tuition to achieve this. Many of the courses for 16- to 19-year-olds, its chief funding priority, also have a remedial element to them.

There is no money to be made available to accommodate any growth in adult education that falls outside these priority areas. On the contrary, funding in this area is being cut. The adult education lobby says that this is dangerously muddle-headed. After the brief current bulge in the 16- to 19-year-old age group, the demographic trend shows numbers of young people falling. Two-thirds of new jobs in the economy are going to have to be taken by adults.

Labour emphasised these funding priorities in its skills white paper two years ago. That document also talked about 100 per cent funding for selected level 3 qualifications in regions and industrial sectors where specific skills are in acute shortage. And yet it is at level 3 (A-levels and their equivalents) that the critical skills shortages which make a difference to productivity and competitiveness begin.

Ministers are anxious that the message taking root is that Labour is prepared to fund only up to and including level 2 qualifications, which are not thought to be significant enough to boost an individual's or the economy's fortunes. It wants more made of its limited willingness to fork out for level 3s.

But the government's clear intention is that, in most cases, employers and individuals must pay more for level 3 and higher qualifications. Up until now, the state has paid three-quarters of the cost for adults pursuing courses for level 3 qualifications in the expectation that colleges would recover the remaining quarter from the students or from their employers.

In reality, many colleges have not done this. In some cases, particularly in areas such as the north-east of England, colleges have charged individuals and employers nothing. In other cases, colleges appear to lack confidence about the quality and desirability of their product. If they ask the punters to pay a little more for courses, won't the punters vote with their feet?

The answer, says the government, is that colleges must make their product much more desirable to industry. Employers must be allowed to dictate the content of courses, and when and where these courses are taught. Colleges must be much more prepared to go on to employers' premises to train people on the job, in the way that private training firms do.

Whether the government can convince industry that colleges have a product worth them paying more for, and at the same time persuade colleges that making changes to their product will hook the employers, remains the big unanswered question.

Peter Kingston is the Guardian's further education editor


What skills are they looking for?

Emma Hopkins Pearson
"We look for three things above all - commercial awareness, analytical ability and a good attitude. A good attitude is often what's most lacking. Some of the graduates who apply to us have a tendency to think that the world owes them a living. This is the wrong attitude to have. After all, it's not just what Pearson can do for them - it's what they can do for Pearson."

Clare Price Personnel manager for graduates, Tesco
"Graduates often have very good ideas that shine through at assessment centres, but often find it difficult to act and make choices about those ideas when faced with multiple options. This indecisiveness indicates that many candidates want someone to provide the direction and tell them the answer. Our graduate schemes support the transition from university to work by encouraging responsibility and decision-making. While Tesco is keen to provide support and encouragement to our graduates, ultimately it is their own drive and determination that will govern their progress."

Graduate team Accenture
"Graduates come to us with good core skills - there are ten applications to every position, so Accenture is in a position where it can choose good people. When the graduates start their training, it is focused on technical training that is specific to their roles at Accenture."

Peter Bennett HR director, Network Rail
"We have found that our first priority is to hone our graduates' interpersonal skills - to make them more aware of their impact on others. Second, we have to get them into the right frame of mind to prepare for the world of work. This means concentrating on their approach to issues such as punctuality and getting them to understand the commercial aspects of running a business."

Sarah Williams Senior HR manager, Lloyds TSB Talent Management & Learning
"Our graduate recruitment programme is geared around identifying graduates with real leadership potential. Once people have joined, we concentrate on developing their skills in four key areas: people management, change management, operational skills and strategy. We expect to see existing evidence of some of these skills. In addition, common sense and political awareness are now the rule rather than the exception. Graduates are increasingly astute about the need to demonstrate commercial acumen, and successful applicants know the value of participating in work placements during their course or in holidays."