It's time to reveal our untapped potential

New leader of 157 Group says sector needs `greater recognition'

Further education colleges in England are a source of "untapped potential and opportunity" and should have a lead role in developing skills and boosting employment, according to an FE leader.

Sarah Robinson, the newly elected chair of the 157 Group and principal of Stoke-on-Trent College, said that FE institutions deserved greater recognition for their expertise and work in their communities.

The 157 Group, which is made up of 30 of the UK's largest FE colleges, is pressing for a bigger role for such institutions in the education and training system, and for the development of stronger links with schools and employment services.

Speaking to TES in her first interview since being elected last month, Ms Robinson said: "I think there's a level of untapped potential and opportunity in colleges.

"Over the past decade, colleges have been forced to transform themselves and seek new ways of working. If you look at what colleges have delivered, they have probably been the most responsive part of the education sector."

She added: "There should be a greater recognition of the work we are doing on the ground, the expertise we have as leaders and innovators. If you look at FE colleges and the range of people we engage with, especially employers, we are already at the heart of our local communities."

Ms Robinson said that this expertise, along with colleges' physical assets and facilities, could be used to greater effect in improving education and employment opportunities.

She called for a better alignment between colleges and Jobcentre Plus in helping people to find work, and for schools and colleges to collaborate in a more structured way - through formal federations, for example.

The 157 Group, whose member colleges employ 37,000 staff and have a combined annual turnover of more than pound;1.5 billion, is keen to position itself as a major player in the sector and is increasing its campaigning ahead of the general election.

Ms Robinson said not everyone was familiar with the work of colleges or understood their potential. She also questioned why the government had invested in new institutions like school sixth forms and University Technical Colleges when it was already funding existing institutions such as FE colleges.

She added: "No doubt there will be pressure in terms of the financial and educational viability [of new institutions] in the near future."

In a document published last week, the group boasts that it has played a "significant" role in influencing FE policy and thinking over the past year, and intends to press politicians from all parties to keep FE centre stage in the policy debate.

The group's latest manifesto, published ahead of next year's general election, calls for stability in FE policy, a fairer and more transparent accountability framework, a better funding and investment system, more autonomy and trust, and a better coordinated approach for engaging with employers.

Andrew Harden, national official for FE at the University and College Union, said: "While we wouldn't necessarily disagree with what Mrs Robinson is saying about the potential of FE colleges, our fear is that in order for FE to keep playing that vital role, it needs to be funded properly.

"We want to join with sector bodies like the 157 Group to vigorously campaign for that."

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