On a recent college visit, a principal pointed out a key feature of the campus I had failed to notice before. Because of the location of the campus and the way it was built, it has ended up as a shortcut for people in nearby housing estates to get to the local supermarket.
This, the principal said, had turned out to be a great way of connecting with a part of the community that had no involvement in education. Re-engaging those furthest away from education and training is a thing that colleges try to do (it is also essential for economic success in this country, particularly post-Brexit).
Young people who come to college may have been referred by careers advisers, teachers, parents or peers. But an adult who has been out of education for a while? Or a mother-of-three who speaks little English?
One way to break down some of the barriers, particularly those that adult learners face, is to offer education for free. Recently, the Education and Skills Funding Agency announced that it plans to offer fully funded study to learners on low wages. The aim, it said, is to increase adult education participation and lift social mobility barriers. This, Tes FE editor Stephen Exley reported last week, could allow colleges to offer free Esol to thousands more learners in the coming months. It is a step in the right direction.
Let us be clear, however: offering free provision will only work where colleges don’t have to carry the financial burden but instead receive the funding from government. And it cannot be the whole story. Engaging with the community in any way possible is also crucial. The principal I visited last week also told me that the college offers guaranteed places to a group of homeless adults. She also recounted some of the college’s community schemes, including hairdressing and barbouring students offering free haircuts.
Of course, colleges need to make sure their doors are open. But to engage those furthest from education, FE needs to go the extra mile to find them. And that normally means money.