You’ve just started work in a college – congratulations. Welcome to one of the most interesting jobs in education, if not the best paid. You will never be short of stimulation and challenge. Colleges are endlessly exciting places to work and we do a really important job.
We are a public service, we are key to the economy, to society and to individuals. We are a vital, essential part of our local communities and we transform people’s lives. The further education sector is diverse in every possible way: in terms of our students, our staff, the range of courses we offer and the areas we serve. Our sector includes over 250 colleges, including further education, tertiary, sixth form, specialist and land-based colleges. We serve over 2 million students, including 16- to 18-year-olds, 14- to 16-year-olds, full-time and part-time adults.
Our students are a representative cross section of British society today. We educate more 16- to 18-year-olds than school sixth forms and our courses range from entry level to degree level and include apprenticeships and adult education. We are good value: every £1 of public money invested in colleges has an economic return of £20 to £30. Across the board, our students’ achievement rates are very good and around four-fifths of colleges have been judged "good" or "outstanding" at inspection.
What makes colleges special?
What’s the best way to describe our work? Are we all about second chance education? Are we the skills sector? Are we engines of social mobility? Do we provide for other people’s children?
There’s no doubt that we are underfunded compared with other parts of the education system. Which is why we need to keep making the case for greater investment through campaigns such as #LoveOurColleges and Colleges Week.
It’s true that colleges often help people relaunch their education and make up the gaps in their earlier learning. It’s true that we reach some of the most marginal or excluded and help them re-engage and move on up. It’s true that we understand what skills are needed to succeed and that we are very responsive to the needs of employers.
It’s also true that many people in the upper echelons of society have little personal experience of further education, but once they discover it they are generally won over. Those influential decision-makers who attended a college themselves often choose to be proud ambassadors for our work.
Each of these descriptions contain some truth, but the reality is more diverse and comprehensive. If we are all these things we are also much more than the sum of these parts. So, rather than trying to label our work, we could simply say that we are the sector of lifelong ambition and opportunity – and we never give up.
How will you make a difference?
Your work matters and what you do will change lives. From day one you need to think of yourself as a valued member of your college’s learning community. See the big picture and place yourself within it. Understand the setting for your work and how you can make a difference. You and your colleagues are the greatest resource we have, your skills and knowledge are what makes the magic happen.
Take an interest in what’s happening in education policy: the curriculum and funding changes, the social and economic trends affecting our students and our communities. Try to see the whole student in the context of their life and their identity; the hopes and skills they bring with them, the challenges they face, their learning and their future progression.
In order to make a difference, you need to be ambitious: for yourself, your colleagues and your students. Commit to your own learning and to developing your expertise. Don’t treat good ideas and good practice as secrets to be jealously guarded. Share them and seek out other "sharers". Offer your ideas, question received wisdom, research, experiment and innovate. You can’t change everything all at once, but you can be influential. Build on your comfort zone, avoid over-reach and burnout by pacing yourself and drawing on the support of others.
There is no doubt that our sector is under pressure and you will see many signs of this. A useful view to take is Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, a phrase which can be interpreted as: “Be aware of all the challenges but remember that you can always make a difference.” So, be an engaged sceptic rather than a passive cynic.
You will also find it useful to look for support and guidance beyond your institution. Sector bodies such as the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), the Society for Education and Training (SET)
and the Association of Colleges (AoC), are a good place to start, as are trade unions, professional associations and subject associations.
Use social media to connect with good practice, debates and new ideas, both via the education media such as @tesfenews , academic institutions such as the Institute for Education and the many practitioner networks and bloggers you can find on Twitter. One starting point is The Periodic Table of FE Educators on Twitter put together by Mark Anderson @ICTEvangelist.
So, welcome to the wonderful world of further education and enjoy making a difference.
Eddie Playfair is the senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges