Our annual conference this year is unlike any other before it. The pandemic has moved it online, with a host of new benefits, but, of course, some losses, too.
We usually gather in Birmingham, with college leaders, chairs, members of governing bodies, senior staff, stakeholders, politicians and suppliers. The activities on the main stage and in the breakouts are special, informative, and inspiring, but AoC Annual Conference has always been about much more than just what happens on the main stage. It has always been a chance to bring the sector together, for us to meet up with colleagues and friends, to network and gossip and build our relationships and share experiences with each other. There’s something quite nourishing about being part of a vibrant, passionate sector at its annual gathering.
Replicating the social side and the networking is difficult online, but the opportunities are enormous. We have over 4,000 people participating, more college staff and governors than ever before, and, of course, another high-class field of speakers and workshops. I’m excited about that reach, because we want to support future leaders as well as current leaders, we want to tap into the expertise across colleges and we want to support the sharing of good practice as widely as we can.
And after the challenges of the pandemic, I hope, above all else, that every participant will feel a sense of belonging and support in a sector that has shown its true colours in this past year. I hope that everyone feels proud about the speed at which colleges responded to the lockdown, moved learning online, supported the most vulnerable students, reached out to those suffering mental health challenges, and they did that whilst showing how much they do for their communities, including supplying personal protective equipment, running food banks, opening facilities and supporting our vital public services. I certainly am proud to be part of this sector, and I know that you are, too.
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My conference opening speech - "If this is a ‘moment’ for our sector, how best can we use it?" – built on all of the hard work of the past few years to raise the profile of colleges, to gain respect and understanding and to position colleges at the heart of national priorities. The #LoveOurColleges campaign has been central to that, and every college across the country has helped to make a success of it by engaging MPs, employers, students and media to celebrate everything that is great about colleges – not just during Colleges Week, but all year round.
Our campaigning really has worked, and we are in a "moment" – the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published last month, was proof enough of that. It’s a White Paper that we have influenced, and it sets out opportunities and policies we can work with to help colleges thrive after a decade of neglect. We’ve fought to be listened to and noticed, and the White Paper is clear about two fundamental things. Firstly, it challenges college leaders to be local systems leaders and to be ambitious for their students, employer partners and communities. Secondly, it offers an opening to co-design the funding and accountability system that colleges operate within, as well as how policies will be implemented.
I’m confident that colleges will step up to both of those challenges, but college leaders are stretched because of the pandemic, which is still causing enormous uncertainty and presenting so many urgent issues. So we need to focus on five key areas if we are to make the most of our moment in the spotlight.
Five things colleges need to focus on
First and foremost, we need to maintain an unerring focus on students. This one is fairly easy, because throughout the pandemic colleges have shown that this is what they do best – sticking to the core job of great teaching and learning and making sure that students have the best experience possible. Colleges have a great record on student wellbeing, achievement, progression and outcomes, and we can help government to design a funding and accountability system that rewards that.
Secondly, we need to shout more about the strong and longstanding partnerships that colleges have with employers. In every college I have ever visited, I have seen brilliant examples of this, and yet often nationally it would be easy to think there were none – whenever we tell people that the average college works with well over 700 local and national employers, people (including MPs and journalists) are shocked, and then suddenly more interested. The White Paper talks about putting employers in the "driving seat" on skills but I don’t think that is what most want. The best partnerships are about mutual respect and recognition of the expertise and resources that the other brings to the table. In our world, colleges know about teaching, learning, skills, training, recruitment and workforce development, and the enlightened employers use that expertise. In return, colleges look to employers for keeping their staff up to date with the workplace and providing work placements for students and advice on curriculum content and future skills needs. It's a mutual long-term and stable partnership.
Thirdly, we need to make sure that equality, diversity and inclusion remain at the heart of our sector. This is, in some ways, implied in the government’s "levelling up" ambitions, but I want to see a much more explicit focus and investment in addressing inequalities in education and in work. I’ve written before about our efforts to tackle the racism in our sector and how more needs to be done to understand and improve the experience, achievement and progression of black students in FE. Work on race is vital but we also need work to improve experiences and outcomes for students with special educational needs and disabilities, and on gender, for LGBT+ students, and on disadvantage.
Fourth, we need to work now on the longer-term forces affecting our world – the climate crisis, longer working lives, technological change, and changing attitudes to life and work. Last year’s report of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future set out a compelling vision for how colleges can help to turn these from threats to opportunities. How green skills in colleges can accelerate progress towards carbon net-zero; how colleges can offer flexible, accessible lifelong learning for people to train and retrain to stay active in changing workplaces over multiple careers; how small and medium-sized enterprises can be supported to learn about and adopt new technology to improve productivity. Colleges can be at the heart of these challenges with the right investment and with enlightened policymakers.
Finally, and very simply, to seize this moment we need to continue to show again and again how vital colleges are – to people, to places, to employers and, ultimately, to the achievement of a fairer, better, more tolerant and nicer country. We need to show those outside our sector the impact that colleges have with over 2 million students every year, and keep stepping into the challenges of society and the economy.
That’s why I wrote today to the newly appointed education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, offering our support as a sector to work with him in facing up to the challenge of lost learning for millions of children and young people. I am particularly worried about the students leaving education this summer hoping to go into work and apprenticeships. They face a tough time with unemployment rising sharply and with lost learning having held many back from gaining the skills, confidence and competencies that they will need to succeed. I’ve proposed that a task group is established with us, with employers and other partners to urgently pull together a plan of action to face this challenge. The college role in it is central. Another example of us showing how and why colleges deserve to be in the spotlight, but also highlighting the need for better investment to maximise their impact.
Colleges have suffered a decade of neglect. We’ve shown why this next decade needs to be different – and it can be. If we continue to be proud of what we do, celebrating everything that is great about colleges, stepping into the big challenges, being positive partners that others want to work with then I believe we can look forward to a decade of engagement, investment and growth. For a better, fairer, more inclusive society and a stronger economy.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges