Back in 2011, Learning and Work Institute (in the form of its predecessor NIACE), along with the Association of Colleges and 157 Group, asked Baroness Sharp to chair a commission about the role of colleges in their communities.
Its final report, published in November 2011, sang the praises of the role that colleges play as drivers of economic growth and partners in local communities, through networks of partnerships.
However, it argued that an almost constant flow of government initiatives had created a complex system which ate up the time and focus of college leaders.
It made the case for freeing colleges up so they could focus on their role at the heart of communities serving people and playing a central role in the educational ecosystem.
'A central role in their communities'
Seven years on, everything has changed and nothing has changed. Certainly, there’s less money and fewer colleges (down from 347 to 266 due to mergers and the growth of college groups). If anything the rate of change and initiatives has increased. Without a doubt, colleges and further education as a whole still play a central role in their communities.
All of this is on my mind during the first Colleges Week. This is already proving a great celebration of the difference that FE and adult learning providers of all types make, and an argument of better funding to support learners of all ages.
There are many arguments to make in favour of better funding for further education and adult learning. The Association of Colleges has put together some key ones for Colleges Week, and Learning and Work Institute did so in the context of adult learning in our Healthy, Wealthy and Wise report.
But I think the arguments that Colleges in their Communities made is crucial.
Perhaps it’s time to set FE and adult learning in the context of social infrastructure? We talk a lot about physical infrastructure – the roads, rail and digital connections between places. But social infrastructure is at least as important.
It consists of the social connections and the organisations and services that build them into a community. This can be everything from parks, museums, libraries, community spaces, and the organised and informal activities that take place within them.
Social infrastructure helps to build social bonds and makes a place a community. At its best, that’s exactly what FE and adult learning does – I see it every time I visit an adult learning provider or college.
It’s not just about learning opportunities for individuals and what this can lead to for them. It’s about communities within colleges and providers, and how they engage with and support their local communities.
Call for flexible funding
Our 2018 Festival of Learning president’s award winner, a London-based community learning provider called ELATT, is a great example of this.
Its Equal Voices project supports migrant and refugee women to improve their literacy through supporting each other, and encourages them to use these skills for community advocacy (for example, agreeing questions to ask at hustings for local mayoral candidates).
The recommendations of Colleges in their Communities will have a familiar ring to many of you.
They include calls for a more flexible approach to funding, encouraging colleges to play an active role in local economic and social partnerships and for local and central government to recognise and support this, and pushing colleges to do all they can to maximise their social and community impact.
'Make it an irresistible political priority'
Times are different now. The case for fair funding is clear and I think most politicians agree with it.
The challenge is how to make it an irresistible political priority when there are clear cases for more funding in so many areas of public policy.
Colleges Week is a good way to help do that. Thinking about colleges and other learning providers in their communities must be part of that, too.
Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute