Further Education


Further Education (FE), the tertiary sector of education, following primary and secondary education, and sometimes preceding higher education. Whereas in the rest of Europe the tertiary sector is generally confined to vocational education and training, in the United Kingdom FE embraces both academic and vocational or professional study programmes. FE in the United Kingdom has no direct equivalent in other parts of the world. Other systems tend towards separation of the vocational system from schools and universities.

Most full-time students in FE study in further education colleges between the ages of 16 and 19, but the majority of FE college students overall are adults and study part-time. FE is often regarded as the “college sector” which provides study opportunities between school and university. However, the boundaries between further education colleges and higher education institutions are becoming increasingly blurred.

FE offers study opportunities for those who need help with basic skills: literacy, numeracy, and key skills at a foundation level. The majority of students are following courses at level 1 to 3 (foundation, intermediate, and advanced), and there are more A-level students in colleges than in school sixth forms. About 20 per cent of FE colleges also offer some higher education, and several universities (generally the former polytechnics) offer some FE.


FE in the United Kingdom is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It has its beginnings in the mechanical and technical institutes of the early 19th century. The first institute was formally constituted in Edinburgh in 1821. The subsequent growth in institutes was phenomenal and was matched by the development of the first national examining bodies from the time of the RSA Examinations Board in 1856. The RSA has now merged with other examinations boards to become the OCR Awarding Body, one of several awarding bodies that also include City and Guilds and Edexcel.

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, the UK had a tripartite system of schools, grammar, technical, and secondary modern, and the role of FE was primarily as a provider of evening study programmes in the local technical college. Before 1940, the technical college was a place of vocational education for the employed. The end of World War II and the demand for new skills meant further education concentrated on day release from work and evening classes. A new era of partnership with industry began. This developed with the industry training boards and levy systems of the 1960s and 1970s and the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) of the 1980s, to the Training and Enterprise Councils of the 1990s.

In the 1960s, with the arrival of comprehensive schools, many local education authorities (LEAs) wanted to offer second-chance opportunities to students at 16 and evening classes to adult students. The tertiary college was born. Many LEAs reorganized in order to set up tertiary colleges for all post-16 students and adults. The FE sector as we know it was created, although the process of providing schools for just 11- to 16-year-olds was not continued, and there is therefore now a diverse system.

FE today is provided by various institutions, including general further education colleges, agricultural and horticultural colleges, art and design colleges, and other specialist colleges; sixth forms in secondary schools, sixth-form colleges (England and Wales only), and universities. In 1999-2000 there were approximately 3.1 million students in FE in England; 22 percent were full-time students and 78 percent part-time. The government has actively encouraged the increase in FE provision.


The structures of funding and quality assurance are different within England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In England, Wales, and Scotland, colleges of further education, tertiary colleges, and sixth-form colleges, which previously received grants directly through their LEAs, have since April 1993 had the autonomy to run their own affairs within the further education sector. Northern Ireland followed suit in 1998. Internal organization, as well as finance and management issues (including pay and conditions of service contracts), are matters for each college to determine. All have governing bodies, which include representatives of the local business community and many courses are run in conjunction with local employers. In April 2001 a national Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was established in England, taking on the funding responsibilities of the English Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) and the functions of the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs).


In the United Kingdom,, the aim is to establish a qualifications framework which includes both academic and vocational qualifications, overcoming traditional barriers and promoting greater flexibility within the system. The intention is that individuals and employers will establish systems to allow employees to attain progressively higher levels of skill. There is close cooperation between the regulatory bodies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In England, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is responsible for a comprehensive qualifications framework, including accreditation for National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). This accreditation also extends to Wales and Northern Ireland. In Wales, the Qualification, Curriculum, and Assessment Authority (ACCAC) perform a similar role to the QCA, while the Welsh Joint Educational Committee offers A-level and GCSE assessment. In Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is a regulatory and awarding body. The main thrust of the framework there is to offer parity of esteem for all qualifications across the system and to include the new competence-based system that has been devised by industry.

In September 2000 a new curriculum, known as “Curriculum 2000”, was introduced. This gives students the opportunity to study more subjects (normally four or five in one year) at AS (Advanced Subsidiary) level, and they can then specialize in two to four subjects in the second year, at the A2 level. The former GNVQs have been renamed as vocational A levels. Key skills of numeracy, literacy, and IT (information technology) efficiency are also examined within the curriculum at different levels.


College systems overseas tend to concentrate exclusively on the vocational provision, as compared with the UK FE college system, which combines academic and vocational provision. Other countries have priorities similar to those of the United Kingdom, including curriculum, qualification, and funding reforms; the decentralization of decision-making; the encouragement of links between industry and education; quality and standards; guidance and counselling; progression; and non-completion. Generally, vocational qualifications have the same low status overseas as in the United Kingdom; however, governments everywhere are aiming to change this perception.

Contributed By:
British Training International

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