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A sector divided on the path ahead

If you have ever wanted to share the collective fantasies of the country's college principals, you'll need to get to Birmingham smartish. All 400 or so of them have been invited to spend today trying to envisage en·vis·age  
tr.v. en·vis·aged, en·vis·ag·ing, en·vis·ag·es
1. To conceive an image or a picture of, especially as a future possibility: envisaged a world at peace.

 the shape of further education in 2020. Their host, John Denham John Denham may refer to:
  • John Denham (UK politician) (born 1953), British Member of Parliament for Southampton Itchen
  • John Denham (poet) (1615–1669), English poet.
  • John 'Abs' Denham is a fictional nurse in the UK television drama Casualty
, secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is a Cabinet minister in the United Kingdom. The post was created on 28th June 2007 on the disbanding of the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Trade and Industry. , calls it scenario planning Scenario planning or Scenario thinking is a strategic planning method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans. It is in large part an adaptation and generalization of classic methods used by military intelligence. .

In his speech to the Association of Colleges last November, he took his audience by surprise when he told them he would be seeking their ideas on where further education should be going. Before Christmas, a select group of principals was invited to a two-day session of blue skies thinking at a hotel in Mayfair, London. From these discussions a shortlist short·list also short-list  
A list of preferable items or candidates that have been selected for final consideration, as in making an award or filling a position.

Noun 1.
 of headings was distilled for consideration by all principals next week.

But, important though they are, these people are a tiny fraction of those working in further education. We decided to ask the thousands of folk lower down the FE food chain what they think about its future. They responded eagerly. Soon after our questionnaire was issued by the Learning and Skills Network, the replies began zinging back. But if we were hoping for further education to speak with one voice, we would have been disappointed.

What emerges from our survey of lecturers and managers, junior and senior, is little consensus on the future direction of colleges. There is almost a sense that, after so many policy shifts in the last decade, the FE workforce has learned to take whatever the government throws at it and keep its head down. "We are very overworked - we don't have that much time to reflect on what we're doing," one manager said.

Where there is strong agreement is over colleges being allowed more control over what they teach: 93% of respondents believe that colleges should be allowed to develop curricula and qualifications. But ask staff to rank a list of 14 activities in priority order for funding, and their answers could not make a minister more proud.

All feel that top priority should go to vocational qualifications for young people; followed by level 2 qualifications for people in work who do not already have them; apprenticeships and work-based training; the "foundation learning tier" basic skills courses for adults; and then level 3 and 4 vocational qualifications for people in work who lack them.

All categories - senior managers, managers and lecturers - rank non-vocational adult learning, the evening-class end of the spectrum, 14th, or lowest priority for public cash.

"People will have answered that way because that is what they are being told," said one senior manager from a west London college West London College (WLC) is one of London's leading independent colleges of further and higher education. It is located in the Mayfair district of Central London and has a student body of 1,500 full time and 500 part time students. . "Everybody has now accepted the status quo [Latin, The existing state of things at any given date.] Status quo ante bellum means the state of things before the war. The status quo to be preserved by a preliminary injunction is the last actual, peaceable, uncontested status which preceded the pending controversy. ."

"There's no learning for leisure left - I think everybody's given in," said a senior lecturer senior lecturer
n. Chiefly British
A university teacher, especially one ranking next below a reader.
 at a north London North London is a part of London, England which has several possible definitions. River & geography
The part of London north of the River Thames (illustrated).
 college. There had been a problem, she said, of people coming year after year and not making discernible dis·cern·i·ble  
Perceptible, as by the faculty of vision or the intellect. See Synonyms at perceptible.

dis·cerni·bly adv.
 progress but seeing the experience as primarily a social event.

Should colleges be subject to national targets? By a small majority (53%) there is overall agreement that they should. But senior managers (67%) are markedly more enthusiastic for them than lower managers (55%) and lecturers (45%).

Should the curriculum in any college be shaped by what employers or what students want? Nearly three-quarters thought that neither group's needs should predominate and the curriculum should reflect an even mix.

More than twice as many respondents (45%) rejected than agreed (19%) with the notion that college mergers benefited students and employers while 35% were indifferent. More disagreed (46%) with than supported (35%) splitting FE at 19, but again this was hardly conclusive Determinative; beyond dispute or question. That which is conclusive is manifest, clear, or obvious. It is a legal inference made so peremptorily that it cannot be overthrown or contradicted. .

As to whether further education is no longer a helpful label for colleges as they try to explain what they do, 41% agreed, 26% disagreed and again roughly a third had no view.
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Date:Feb 26, 2008
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