This article describes the different sorts of colleges, the courses they run and some funding and quality issues.

Types of colleges
What is a college? Well there are different types of institutions that call themselves colleges, some of which are not relevant to this website. The colleges that we want to look at in this article are what are sometimes called further education colleges and deal with learners aged 16 and above (and sometimes with 14-16 year olds). We are also interested in sixth form colleges and some specialist colleges that deal with education after school. We will not be discussing those Universities that are made up of colleges or schools that have college in their name in this article.

What do colleges teach? Colleges deal with a wide range of courses. They provide GCSE and AS / A level courses just like many schools. In many cases, they also deliver higher diploma and degree provision like universities. They also run courses that prepare students for certain types of employment. Such vocational courses include hairdressing, engineering, car mechanics, catering among many others. They also provide adult education classes that lead to qualifications, including those for English and mathematics.   

Some history
FE colleges developed in two main ways during the Victorian period. One development was around the personal development of adults, the second was more related to particular work related training.

The two motivations, of personal development and work related training, have continued to be key up to this day with much provision being targeted to provide the development of the learner as an individual and other courses having a work focused approach. In reality, both aspects need to be considered and provision that takes both motivations into account are likely to be the most effective.    

In the 1940s, the Education Act required local authorities to support and manage education for its population. This meant that compulsory schooling and post 16 education was brought under the public sector.

In the early 1990s, the then Conservative government decided to move college management from local authorities and make them independent corporations. The intention was that the newly independent organisations would compete and that costs would be driven down. There was a period of growth at this time with more and more courses being funded although the unit cost per student was reduced over time.

Colleges are formally run by unpaid Governing bodies that college executive management reported to. During the Conservative years, there were requirements for minimum numbers of ‘business’ members. The intention was to bring ‘business’ thinking into the public sector. During the Labour period beginning at the end of the 90s, restrictions were removed and other ‘stakeholders’ were given voice.   

From the 1944 Education Act until incorporation, FE Colleges were funded by local authorities through education budgets. This meant that resources for colleges were localised and funding differed across the country. Funding for each year was based upon the previous year and changes in student numbers and provision.

This all changed in the early 90s when colleges were made independent organisations. Funding was provided from Central government through a series of organisations, first the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), then the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and now the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). The funding has been moved to a system in which funding is based upon the number of learners and the type of course being followed.

Courses and qualifications
The twin approach of dealing with personal development and work based training has led to a variety of courses being on offer in colleges. For literacy and numeracy this has meant:

  • classes specifically for the subject
  • courses that incorporate a range of provision
  • vocational courses that need skills development alongside.

In addition, colleges may run courses for Job Centres, for particular employers, Family learning programmes in schools

Staff and training
The staffing of FE colleges has been an issue for some time. Sixth Form colleges have followed school rules and have expected the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) qualifications following appropriate degree level study. Other FE colleges had different requirements. The fact that there was so much vocational and technical education had meant that it was important to have vocational experts. These experts in areas such as plumbing, hairdressing are not expected to have degree level qualifications. Most colleges expected some form of teacher training and for many years Certificate in Education (CertEd) programmes have been run to train teachers for college delivery.

Early in the new Millennium, legislation was introduced that required all teaching staff in the FE sector to be qualified to teach. In addition, for ESOL, literacy and numeracy teachers additional training requirements were introduced. The standards were revised in 2007 and the legislation was expanded to include all institutions, not just colleges, funded for lifelong learning.    

Quality and inspection
At the time of incorporation, colleges were inspected by the FEFC as part of their role. Following, the learning and skills act, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) has been responsible for quality assuring the delivery of education in the lifelong learning sector. They were initially supported by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) until it was merged into Ofsted.

An interesting aspect of the change in central funding, and moves from the public to the private, has been the use of educational management companies that employ and run inspection teams. For example, CfBT and Tribal employ and run inspections for Ofsted.

Drawbacks to college provision
FE colleges have adapted to changes for as long as they have existed. But some still see inflexibility in the way that they are run. Some argue that other training providers can provide better and more flexible ways of delivering courses. They point to the fact that in workplace and prison education the use of school terms has little meaning and can act as a blockage. This has led to a growth in the range of other training providers supporting post compulsory education.   

The global recession has changed many things in the public sector. There has been talk of introducing a loan system like that used for universities. This may enable better funding for FE courses but it will also burden more of the population with debts. What all this means for literacy and numeracy remains to be seen. If these skills are considered as important as they have been then it is likely that some form of funding will enable the programmes to continue.  

FE colleges form one of the biggest sectors of education although it is not generally understood by the general public. In part, this is because colleges are quite different from each other and provide different courses and qualifications.

From the perspective of adult skills, colleges provide adult literacy and numeracy classes that usually lead to nationally recognised qualifications. These qualifications may be ends in themselves or as a progression to other courses. In addition, literacy and numeracy are delivered through the functional skills qualifications studied alongside other programmes.

In addition, colleges can support other provision such as prison education, family learning and employment focused training.

For many years, the funding for post compulsory education has been more generous for young adults than for older people. This has been to try to make sure that the largest number of younger people succeed in getting a job. There are now those who think it is equally important that older adults are given more opportunities. It remains to be seen what happens.

The Association of Colleges has details of contacts of FE colleges:

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) contains contacts and inspection reports on many institutions including colleges

The Skills Funding Agency fund colleges.

National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy produces research

National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has worked in the field of adult education for some time

BBC WebWise – a beginner's guide to computers and the internet

For an overview of the post compulsory sector, the following textbooks contain useful information.

Armitage A, Bryant R Dunnill R Flanagan K Hayes D Hudson A Kent J Lawes S Renwick M (2007) Teaching and Training in Post-compulsory Education Open University Press. ISBN 978-0335222674

Petty G (2009) Teaching Today A Practical Guide Fourth Edition Nelson Thornes ISBN: 978-1408504154

NIACE have recently undertaken a series of studies into post compulsory education and have some useful information on the sector in particular read

Howard U (2009) FE Colleges in a New Culture of Adult and Lifelong Learning: IFLL Sector Paper 7 NIACE Leicester

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