Overcoming challenges is something we are all very used to in FE. Yet my team and I have discovered that tackling problems in a different way and making things happen in a socially responsible way is leading to real economic and social benefit.
Change is not something we have shied away from. Indeed, our successful three-way merger in 2016 - which brought together three very different colleges to form London South East Colleges – is testament to the vision and ambition of our board, staff and students.
With our apprenticeship company and academy trust also expanding at this time, we created the overarching London and South East Education Group to oversee the different organisations, which are providing education to a diverse demographic across Bromley, Bexley, Greenwich and beyond.
College 'responding to industry skills needs'
As a result of this work, it is clear that we are playing a much greater role than simply providing college courses to our local communities. Major projects, including the development of the London Aerospace and Technology College at Biggin Hill and the proposed development of the Place and Making Institute in Bexley, are seeing us work in collaboration with industry and between us, transforming the skills landscape. With employers helping to design the curriculum across all our subject areas, we are responding to industry skills needs much more effectively.
Our relationship with local authorities has also strengthened following our merger. We are working with them to meet demand for skills and deliver the education that’s needed – from high-quality FE courses and apprenticeships to higher education within our university centre.
Additionally, at the request of our local authority, we took the brave decision to sponsor an alternative provision school and a special provision school, both of which were failing and at risk of closure. Our teams have not only turned these schools around (both now rated as "good" by Ofsted) but we have also built strong partnerships with a wide range of education providers across the borough and beyond. As well as helping young people to return to mainstream school where appropriate, we also provide outreach services, to help prevent exclusion in the first place.
'Close community links'
Our close community links and focus on employability have also led to an expansion of our college-based SEND provision for 16- to 24-year-olds; 50 per cent of these students gained employment last year, against a London average of just 6 per cent. Our support for both the employer and the student has enabled us to achieve this success – and reflects the wider ethos of the group in terms of inclusion, impact and partnership.
This widening role has led us to rethink our roles and responsibilities going forward. We want to maximise our resources and expertise in order to bring even greater benefits to our students, their families and their communities.
Such a model was, in fact, highlighted in 2011 by Baroness Sharp, who led an independent commission looking at colleges in their communities. Her report set out a vision of colleges as the “dynamic nucleus at the heart of their communities” – based on mutual trust, joined-up local government, entrepreneurial college leaders and flexible funding.
'Social enterprise organisations'
When looking ahead at the next five years, we want to take this approach. We want to reflect how we have embedded ourselves in our communities, with the desire to help improve health (both social and economic) and wellbeing. It’s clear that a collaborative approach has a greater collective impact – and this moves us on from being simply a college, to becoming a social enterprise organisation that delivers significant public and social value in our local communities.
We are operating in a fast-moving global context, which raises major challenges for education. There are huge demands on leadership, governance and staff to adapt to the complex needs of students, the pace of technology, achievement rates and the need to demonstrate value for money. This is at the same time as ensuring high-quality provision, meeting the needs of employers and continually finding adequate resources to invest in staff and facilities.
By creating a cohesive social enterprise model, where we work as partners with staff, students, employers and local and national government, we are putting ourselves in a position to influence, inform and contribute to education provision going forward. Higher quality education comes hand in hand with social mobility – which, in turn, improves the lives of people and their communities.
Sam Parrett is CEO of London and South East Education Group