Every week, I get to share a bit of time with a 12-year-old S1 pupil who just happens to be exceptionally keen on learning the intricacies of German irregular verbs. He is incredibly bright, a keen learner who is surrounded by books, and both his parents attended leading universities. So quite naturally, university was what his mind was set on even when we met three years ago.
Throughout everything, colleges have continued to deliver myriad opportunities to thousands of learners, have developed and innovated great schemes and opened bright and shiny new campuses
However, last week, in the chit-chat that preceded our lesson on the German future tense, he announced he had decided to do an HND, and had picked a Scottish college at which to do that. He had checked, he said, and the college not only had a great reputation, it also had one of those established pathways straight into third year at a neighbouring university that I had mentioned. Wouldn’t it be great, he said, to have two years of vocational education as well as a degree.
Now, I feel I must accept some blame for this – and I am happy to do so. He hears me speak about my work, my visits to colleges, and the sort of experience they offer, and clearly, this has coloured his view. Of course, as he is currently not even halfway through S1, I suspect his plans will change about a dozen times over the coming years.
But whatever lies ahead of him, he is aware of college as an option for all the right reasons. And this, I fear, is where he is one step ahead of many of his peers. Much has been written about the importance of broad careers advice and guidance to ensure that young people and their parents are aware of all the opportunities colleges can offer.
However, I also believe that colleges have a part to play, too. The sector has had a rough few years – significant budget cuts, together with fundamental restructuring, cases of mismanagement hitting the news, strike action and principals appearing in front of Parliamentary committees.
Throughout all that, colleges have continued to deliver myriad opportunities to thousands of learners, have developed and innovated great schemes and opened bright and shiny new campuses. It is also now, as a sector, fundamentally changed.
A shift in mood
The large regional colleges are establishing themselves as powerful partners to local authorities and universities, as well as both local and national employers. And while many issues still prevail, at a recent FE awards ceremony, a number of guests told me how they felt that the mood was starting to alter for the better.
So with many fearing further cuts for the sector might be just around the corner, surely this is the time for FE to lift its head and shout? Shout about the great work that happens in colleges every day, and shout about the role the sector can play in delivering opportunities for young people who currently don’t even know what colleges are, and in delivering the priorities the government has set out for Scotland as a whole.
Colleges Scotland’s article on the learning and skills journey, published last week, does just that (“Colleges Scotland: put FE at the heart of regional hubs”, Insight, 25 November). It sets out the role that colleges could play in the wider education landscape, and outlines how the sector can help deliver priorities, such as the growth of apprenticeship numbers in Scotland (see pages 14-15).
It is a crucial step in the right direction for a sector that has for too long been referred to as “Cinderella”. Because if it doesn’t get better at proactively setting the agenda, it will continue to run the risk of being an afterthought, and my friend in S1 will remain the exception, not the rule.