On size alone the further education (FE) sector forms a central part of the English post-16 education and vocational training system. But historically English FE colleges have not been given the degree of attention by policy-makers, the media or indeed academic researchers that their scale and strategic importance would appear to warrant. While this state of affairs seems rooted in the nature of the socio-economic groups FE colleges serve and the FE sector’s considerable heterogeneity, there are indications that FE’s role and profile may be growing in response to policy developments relating to higher education, greater freedoms for FE and the continuing emphasis of successive British governments on skills as a key to enhanced national economic competitiveness. Such a future is by no means certain, however. As pressures from greater competition in the post-16 education/training market and the Coalition Government’s programme of public expenditure reductions intensify, FE’s strategic and financial position could weaken, choking off these aspirations.
The paper considers the strategic options facing English FE colleges at this critical time for their future. It examines three issues of particular importance to the sector’s development – the potential to expand and develop the delivery of higher education in FE colleges; the role of FE in delivering vocational qualifications in light of shifts in government policy and employer attitudes; and the future sustainability of the current FE sector given the risk of reductions in colleges’ incomes and increases in their costs. It concludes that FE’s aspirations to enhance its impact and recognition in relation to national learning and skills are achievable, although not a given, with much depending on developments over the next two to three years. Increased research would help inform the policy and operational decisions that achieving this will require. The paper draws upon a review of the literature; contributions from a panel of the sector’s strategic decision-m kers, influencers and practitioners; and the author’s experience as an FE college principal and funding council executive director.