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Thursday, 10 February, 2000, 17:37 GMT
College lecturers will have to be qualified
Lecturers in further education colleges in England are to be required, for the first time, to have recognised teaching qualifications.
The move comes at a time of huge expansion in the sector, which could see another 600,000 students within two years.
Although the government's proposal is broadly welcomed by those involved, there are fears that it could deter part-time lecturers who provide of the most popular courses.
The Education Minister Malcolm Wicks said it should lead to higher exam pass rates and lower dropout rates.
Speaking at the first national Further Education National Training Organisation conference, Mr Wicks said: "The consultation process I am announcing today is the first step in developing fully qualified professional teachers in further education and should lead to a rise in quality and standards in the sector.
"The proposed requirement for all further education teachers to hold recognised qualifications will help boost performance and ensure that teachers have the necessary range of appropriate skills to deal with the full range of student needs.
"This should lead to a higher general level of tuition and more motivated students, in turn leading to improved exam results and reduced dropout."
The proposals would bring further education more in line with schools, where for many years all teachers have been required by law to have qualified teaching status.
The further education (FE) sector covers about 430 colleges in England, educating more 16 to 19-year-olds than all schools do, and over twice as many adults as all universities.
It will come as a surprise to many that the teachers have not had to have recognised qualifications until now.
What the government is proposing for consultation is that, as a maximum, all aspiring FE lecturers must pass an initial test, on a par with the entry qualifications of school teachers.
It suggests that those who do not have teacher training certificates would have to acquire a new Certificate of Education (FE) qualification, or something equivalent, within at the most three years of taking up their posts.
That is the favoured option and it would apply also to part-time lecturers. But two lower stages of qualification are also suggested to try to avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water.
"The diversity of the FE sector is one of its strengths," says the consultation paper. "Its ability to draw on a wide range of part-time staff, many of whom work in other professions and have up-to-date skills, is an asset which we want to nurture and protect.
"But we also want to ensure that students get the highest quality of teaching. Getting the balance right between high minimum teaching requirements whilst avoiding them becoming deterrents to participation by would-be lecturers is crucial."
The Association of Colleges, representing 98% of them in England and Wales, says the proposals could transform the professionalism of the sector - but could also cause problems.
The association's deputy chief executive, Sue Dutton, said: "One of the reasons why FE does so remarkably well is the way it cleverly adapts to, and embraces, new demands including those by people who need to re-train to stay in the employment market.
"Colleges are straining to make lifelong learning a reality. So they would find it difficult doing business with any new constraints that restricted their flexibility to respond to their communities."
Further education has had a bad press of late, due chiefly to actual and alleged financial mismanagement in a number of colleges, but also to perceptions of low educational standards.
A new book analysing the sector, Further Education Re-formed, co-edited by Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, suggests that colleges have been hit by the "double whammy" of a new funding regime and new qualifications structure.
Because the qualifications did not specify course content, the colleges were free to "go all over the place", Prof Smithers said.
"Hence the franchising of qualifications to supermarket shelf stackers, amateur dramatic societies and numerous private providers, some little more than rooms above fish-and-chip shops."
But he said the colleges were finally able to establish a distinct identity and have made valuable contributions to education.
The present government's intention to replace their funding council with a broader Learning and Skills Council carried risks, he said.
"It is important therefore that it understands the underlying reasons why some colleges 'failed' and does not assume that putting things right is merely a matter of tightening up on governance and management."
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