I love statistics. Anyone who has worked with me will confirm few things make me happier than a multi-coloured spreadsheet full of data. And if that data then sheds light on a matter relating to further education, I am in heaven.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know statistics can often be misleading, and a reliable dataset on education is about as rare as a sunny, warm day in Edinburgh once the festival starts.
But there are, every once in a while, figures that reveal something new or surprising even to those of us who spend all their time immersed in the intricacies of education policy.
And then there are statistics such as the college student figures by age we report on this week – which confirm the long-standing assumption that within the overall drop in college numbers, older learners are particularly affected.
Some of that is only logical. Government policy has for a number of years now focused on colleges providing places for full-time, younger learners. That is clear not only from the Opportunities for All commitment, guaranteeing a place in education or training for every 16- to 19-year-old not already in education, employment or training but also from the Developing the Young Workforce strategy.
And there is a logic to that. Bringing down youth unemployment means that people are more likely to be on the path for successful careers later on in life. Hopefully, that will help tackle unemployment overall. It is also only a matter of weeks since I wrote in this very spot about how much I support any attempts to link school and college more closely.
But it cannot be the whole story. We know, many of us from personal experience, that today’s labour market requires people to retrain, change jobs, and even industries throughout their working life. Colleges, with their close links to employers across their region, are the natural home for the sort of training – often part-time and alongside work – that is required.
If they are unable to provide that opportunity to people across all ages, it would be a crucial role within the economy being lost.
And then there are those who return to education, many after a demoralising first experience, to improve their skills and build on their qualification to be able to improve their current position.
One of the first FE events I ever attended was a speech by Michael Russell, then education minister, around the time cuts were starting to hit the sector and the regionalisation agenda had just been announced. In front of students and staff at an urban college, he was confronted by a woman in her 30s.
She was a single mother of three, she said, and had just returned to education having left school at 16 with no qualifications to her name. It had taken her years to build up the courage, and she had only managed to do so after slowly building links with the institution through visiting its library and café. Where would she have gone, she asked, once there would be no more places locally for part-time learners of her age? She left the event in tears shortly after.
This is one of the fundamental worries that the Audit Scotland data has left me with. There is no doubt colleges need to be at the heart of offering crucial pathways to young people to help get them ready for the world of work.
But offering second, third and fourth chances is the lifeblood of the FE sector. We need to make sure that is not lost as we focus ever more on endless government interventions and targets for younger students. Easier said than done.