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Twenty years ago radical change took place as colleges were freed from local authority control.

The revolution had started five years earlier when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced market forces into state schools.

After the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and the resultant Incorporation the following year (page 3), however, colleges rapidly overtook schools and could now teach them a lesson or two — no wonder government officials were imploring college leaders to sponsor a new generation of academies at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham last November.

But what has happened to colleges over the last two decades? What are the prospects now as the Coalition offers new “freedoms” through strategies spelled out in New Challenges, New Chances in what many would describe as a period of “re-Incorporation”?

It is clear that the revolution, started 20 years ago, is still in need of nurturing”

This supplement can only provide a snapshot and, in so doing, concentrates solely on the colleges and local adult and community services reshaped under the Act.

From what the politicians of both the Coalition and Labour Party say (page 4), Incorporation is “unfinished business” as colleges must get even closer to employers and the community through Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Were anyone to doubt the unfinished nature of the task, Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel (page 5) points out that the whole process of self–improvement and true autonomy envisaged all those years ago will take at least another three to five years to complete.

But as coverage on pages 6 and 7 shows, protracted debates over who really owns or controls the sector have not stopped a remarkable upsurge of enterprise and entrepreneurialism in FE.

While it must be acknowledged that a few rogue college leaders overstepped the mark with dodgy deals and franchises — bringing unwelcome curtailment of freedom for the majority — the creative zeal of most, characterised lately by the Gazelle Colleges Group, has been remarkable.

The 20-year case study of City and Islington College shows just how far such zeal reaches into every corner of the curriculum and student population.

However, the FE sector continues to suffer a relatively poor image. To a large extent, as shown on page 10, this arises from the complexity of the sector and failure to identify a college “brand”.

But page 11 poses the question that perhaps a unified “brand” is impractical in light of the changing and burgeoning scope and size of colleges post-Incorporation.

And certainly, concerns at Ofsted that colleges might be over-reaching themselves haven’t aided the image situation of today.

It’s just the latest in a highly equivocal, nevertheless constructive, relationship between FE and its inspectorate, as inspectors present (Matthew Coffey) and past (David Sherlock, who was a member of the Lingfield inquiry into professionalism in colleges) testify on page 12.

But as new, more affordable learning opportunities emerge daily through the power of ICT (page 13) and as the quality of the FE estate improves despite the pressures of austerity (page 14), it is clear that the revolution, started 20 years ago, is still in need of nurturing.

As a last word, for now, in all this change, have we really kept sight of the true needs of FE?

Alan Tuckett, of the International Council for Adult Education, and David Igoe, from the Sixth Form Colleges Association, remind us on page 15 that the world of FE is bigger than the skills agenda that currently dominates.

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