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'After all, this is the students' college'

One Tes FE Awards winner has created a student support service that truly puts learners at the heart of college life

student support voice central bedfordshire college Tes FE awards

One Tes FE Awards winner has created a student support service that truly puts learners at the heart of college life

The Tes FE Awards 2019 are open for entries. The deadline for entering is Friday 20 July. For more information, visit

The term student support covers anything from careers advice and guidance to providing support in times of crisis, and from supporting learners with learning difficulties to promoting the Prevent strategy.

At Central Bedfordshire College, winner of the 2018 Tes FE Award for professional services team of the year, responsibility for all these aspects of support sits with the student services team and forms true wraparound care. Close collaboration between curriculum staff and support teams creates an environment where the students' progression and ability to flourish throughout their time at college is approached in a holistic manner.

Vice-principal Sarah Mortimer says the “vast range of services under our student services team enables us to encase the student and protect the student”. “It impacts the learning, the learners’ experience and, ultimately, their outcome,” she adds.

Learners' needs

The college serves two local authorities with very different profiles and needs. Over 70 per cent of students from Central Bedfordshire and 91 per cent of students from Luton come from areas of high deprivation. But thanks to the importance placed on pastoral care and support, an atmosphere is created where students feel safe, motivated and empowered to focus their effort and attention on their studies. This has resulted in 96 per cent of graduating students progressing to universities, apprenticeships and employment, with the college placed in the top 12 per cent in the country.

The diverse mix of learners also means that the student services team needs to be flexible in its approach. Ms Mortimer says: “We have eradicated any achievement gap in our learners. There is no significant gap in any of the cultures or any of the learning mix of students.”

Problems with gang culture and the risk of radicalisation or child sexual exploitation are threats to young people in many areas around the UK. At Central Bedfordshire College, these and many other issues are faced by promoting debate, tolerance and greater understanding.

Protecting mental health

Philosophical enquiry is used as part of the college’s teaching model, encouraging learners to become independent thinkers and take ownership of their learning. Using philosophical enquiry in a support context gives learners the tools to articulate their feelings around challenging topics that might otherwise be more difficult to talk about.

Like many colleges nationally, Central Bedfordshire has increasing concerns regarding the mental health of students. In response, the college has health and wellbeing practitioners on site who are there to offer expertise. Support is available not only with the trained team in student services, but also from external mental health and nursing services, and numerous wellbeing agencies who are on site in the college on a weekly basis.

Ms Mortimer says: “That’s been absolutely critical in stopping students from going into very serious crisis situations that historically would have happened because those services weren’t available to them. In a society where funding in the NHS and in the local authority is very tight, it’s hard sometimes for young people, unless they are in hospital, to access these kinds of services.”

Recognition for hard work

Sarah Mortimer says winning the Tes FE Award represents recognition for the hard work and effort that the student services team has put in, often working “very long hours and very long days”. But, in addition, it demonstrates to students that the college offers an all-round service that supports and enables them to get the most out of all their time there, not just out of the time spent in their main academic programme.

A closer relationship with students has been forged, nurturing an increasingly vocal learner voice and reshaping the student council. Ms Mortimer says: “The learners are instrumental in the changes we've made. The more empowered they are, the better the service will get. After all, this is their college."

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