A wise (albeit fictional) man once said: "With great power comes great responsibility." Admittedly, he was addressing a difficult teen with a penchant for lycra swinging from skyscrapers, but it remains sound advice. As teachers we are paid to have social responsibility, so one of our key roles is encouraging students to gather momentum and confidence in exploring their aspirations.
For many students, FE will be their final chance to learn the skills that will provide them with tools to achieve a better quality of life, so the level of power we have as agents for change in their lives is not to be underestimated.
Of course, the measures of success are personal. Sometimes the goal is simply motivation itself. I recently learnt that a number of city councils assess their employees on their level of "ambition and potential", regardless of personal circumstances or desire for corporate ascension. The driving force to provide a high quality of service in a current position would not score well on the scale. However, an employee showing a hungry determination to progress to a more senior role would, in X Factor terms, secure a week making a "journey" in Gary Barlow's LA fort.
What irks me about this index is the lack of recognition for people whose ambition is to simply do their job well and provide their best for the people they serve. When I ask my students where they see themselves in five years' time, many robotically trot out "to have my own business". While chutzpah is to be applauded, I don't believe that's what some of them actually want. They have simply clocked the "ambition and potential index" that modern life seems to demand a good score in; it's a fearless creature who will confess to "just" wanting a job they enjoy and the ability to pay the gas bill in their own home.
The inflating of ambitions is at one end of the scale. On the other are those students who in years gone by would admit to only being there for the EMA. I didn't believe them either. It takes some motivation and discipline just to turn up. It has taken generations of constantly reaffirmed worthlessness to grind these students down to a point where their aspirations are so low, and often a large college environment doesn't best suit them.
A more holistic approach has been developed in Nottinghamshire. In 2007, Asha Khemka, principal of Vision West Notts, founded the Inspire and Achieve Foundation, to give people with few prospects a chance. Ashfield College, created by Vision West Notts and supported by the foundation, is for young people who are not in employment, education or training. It has a maximum intake of just over 100 students to allow a familial atmosphere and individualised support. The foundation is planning to build a second centre, with ambitions of replicating the model nationally.
Such initiatives show social responsibility at its most proactive. By igniting possibility in those least able to see it, FE teachers have the power to make positive changes in the wider community. And unlike that friendly neighbourhood superhero, we don't have to be bitten by a radioactive arachnid in order to do so. Happily, this also negates the need to look good in lycra.
Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.