Omens of new hope in Oldham

The northern town once torn by racial tensions can look forward to a brighter future, writes Nick Brown

During the Oldham disturbances of 2001, the town's sixth-form college - of which I am the principal - was described as "a haven of peace and tranquillity" in the Commission for Racial Equality's national magazine.

This was true, and would also have applied to the town's general further education college.

But that is not the sort of praise we want to have heaped on us - because, like most of the debate about a multi-racial society, it is predicated on a deficit model.

We are not particularly interested either in accumulating accolades for political correctness or espousing social or political ideologies. We believe it is the multi-racial mix in Oldham that creates the right conditions for the town to develop socially and economically.

This is admittedly rather pragmatic, but is built on analysis of how sustainable economic growth can be created through a programme that develops the population's potential skills. When developed, this potential will produce a highly qualified community that is able to take advantage of the skilled jobs in the new industries developing in the town.

This regeneration - based as it is on educational activity rather than just a speculative throwing up of new buildings - will be long-term and will benefit local people. The experiences of these people in that process will help to build the community cohesion so vital to Oldham.

FE drives this agenda. The two colleges have a strong vision that fuels their separate missions - that the route to a regenerated and prosperous town is through education that enables high achievement and transition to higher education so that a new professional class emerges: people that will live in the town and enrich it.

In the recent league tables of achievement at 18, Oldham has moved quite rapidly from third-lowest to the top third nationally. If the tables included a value-added measure, the town would be much higher.

This has been achieved through high-quality teaching and a simple mission, but also through considerable innovation that has led to a great widening of participation and greater inclusion. A third of the cohort of each college comprises non-white students, and it is particularly interesting to note that Oldham is far more successful in achievement at level 3 (A-level equivalent) than it is at GCSE, where education is largely segregated on account of the particular distribution of schools and racial groups across the town.

The colleges provide an integrated and happy experience for all Oldham students who seek to move on to FE. But this only works if the colleges are seen to achieve, and to provide a culture that is peaceful, attractive and makes those who are doubtful want to buy in.

The colleges have another advantage in that there is huge potential for value-added growth in the borough. This means that there is an untapped group of students with the potential to move through FE to university, and the population previously regarded as a factor of disadvantage can be seen as the impulse for the town to move forward.

Two innovative and bold strategies have helped to give rise to this, and neither would have been possible without a strong partnership and a particularly pro-active local council and forward-thinking university.

The first is the formation of a college-run "junior university" that works in all secondary schools to raise aspirations and support students through to college. It then helps them to achieve while they are there.

The second is the close partnership with the borough council to provide higher education in the town. This was necessary because it has been clearly shown that, for many students, moving to higher education outside the town is a step too far. To this end, there has been great progress this year with the opening of University Centre Oldham, which will now be developed by Huddersfield university.

These developments form the bedrock of an ambitious scheme to redevelop a significant part of the town centre, a project that will include the Colisseum theatre, "business incubator" units, a university and a further education and sixth-form college - all on one large campus.

It is enormously satisfying to see students from a variety of backgrounds entering college, perhaps with some misgivings, and leaving after two years of high achievement in a friendly atmosphere. They depart enriched by a positive experience in a supportive and integrated culture, with all the intellectual benefits and social breadth that this implies.

Whatever attitudes these students were brought up with, it is highly likely that those they pass on to their children will be quite different.

Nick Brown is principal of Oldham sixth-form college and chair of the local strategic partnership

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