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A glance into FE's collaborative future

Comment: Matt Atkinson

Comment: Matt Atkinson

Let's face it, the gods have been reasonably kind to the further education sector over the past 10 years or so, but our world is changing, significantly.

Changes around funding are, of course, linked to the tightening of the public expenditure belt. Some changes have been brought about by somewhat questionable policy decisions and others are linked to the rate at which our world is changing.

Recognising that we face so much change, it is time for a new understanding and maturity in our college for sure, but probably also in our sector and skills system - a time for new and somewhat difficult conversations.

Having moved from recovery speedily and successfully and recognising the importance of moving from command leadership to collective contributions on the future role for our college, we embarked on a whole-college and community conversation on our future direction.

It is clearly the case that the pendulum has swung from central to local, and it is now more important than ever for colleges to recognise their role as place-shapers. Our conversation involved the whole college - staff and students - conversing with the director of children's services, our university vice-chancellor, the council's regeneration manager, and the chief executive of our largest and most successful employer.

What do they want from us? How do we respond? What should we be doing for our students so that they can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow?

While we are undoubtedly in for a bumpy ride, we are now presented with opportunities to nurture meaningful relationships in our localities. Local authorities can't fulfil their educational obligations without us; we are central to tackling unemployment and upskilling people to meet the demands of a knowledge-based economy and we are increasingly playing a role in community cohesion and other social agendas.

In fairly recent times, the discussion of "place" has become somewhat zeitgeisty and has been applied to a whole range of scenarios, including both public service reform and achieving efficiencies in government spending. But let us not underestimate just how important FE colleges are to the notion of "place" and the significant contribution we can make to our local agendas.

One thing about today's landscape is the recognition that creative, collaborative efforts are required to meet a multiplicity of sometimes conflicting demands. Never before has there been such an opportunity for us to have so many seats around so many important tables and it is essential the people who work in our colleges understand this and contribute to it.

Involving the whole college and the wider community in a strategic conversation of this sort is bringing a new understanding and a new maturity to our college. Our people now have a much better sense of the importance of our place and what we face and this can only help us approach a future which, it seems, will be defined by both challenges and opportunities.

And we are supported by the Australian Commission on the Future's parting phrase - the future is not a place we are going to, it's a place we're making.

Now that's a great conversation opener.

Matt Atkinson, Principal of City of Bath College.

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