Champion of European links shows how other UK colleges can raise their game. Martin Whittaker reports
Radstock seems a long way from the heart of Europe. A former coalfield town in the north Somerset hills, it lives in the shadow of its better-known neighbour, the Georgian city of Bath.
But if Peter Hodgson had his way, the campus at the town's entrance would shout out its presence with a row of flags, one for every nation in the European Union.
Mr Hodgson is a senior manager at Norton Radstock college and a passionate Europhile, a preoccupation that has given him what is surely a unique position in further education. For he also holds the post of vice-president of the European Forum of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (EfVET), a professional association which encourages colleges across Europe to share good practice. His business card carries two addresses - one in Radstock, and the other in Rue de la Concorde, Brussels, where he has an office.
He has helped the college to develop a wide range of partnerships and projects, allowing students to gain work experience and staff to do professional development throughout Europe.
But Mr Hodgson says UK colleges are not doing enough to engage with their EU neighbours. "We are going to be disenfranchising our young people if we don't broaden our links into Europe. When a Portuguese student comes here at 17, their skill level is relatively high. They often have the capacity to speak a number of languages fluently, and they are highly motivated and mature learners. Could you say the same for a 17-year-old from the UK?"
His college's partnerships in Europe began 15 years ago, when it started work placements in Portugal for students in business administration and leisure and tourism. "Our students were from a rural, deprived area," says Mr Hodgson. "They had little or no experience of travelling beyond the county, let alone in Europe.
"We looked at funding to develop staff and students through exchanges and placements abroad, and began to build a network of partners." Today the college has links with more than 120 institutions across the EU - and Hodgson has become an expert in the Byzantine process of winning European funding.
In one pilot initiative involving 13 countries, the college has been running distance-learning programmes to help small rural businesses in north Somerset to diversify and become more sustainable.
Another partnership has been developing resource packs aimed at training tutors to embed basic skills in vocational learning.
The college also offers work experience abroad for students in hairdressing, business, IT, and horticulture. And the European Middle Management project offers training for aspiring managers across a range of countries.
Tina Marsden, who manages the college's centre of vocational excellence in care, has taken part in two projects and says it has made her see her job in a new light. The projects required her her to examine FE in other countries, and so involved visits to new EU states such as Bulgaria, and Poland. She said: "You have countries like Denmark, which are very forward-thinking. They have many fewer accountability constraints than we do." The Danes, she said, had just laughed at the detailed "almost minute-my-minute plans" demanded by England's inspection framework.
"We visited Bulgaria and were taken around teacher-training schools where you see the lack of resources. We spend a lot of time grumbling but in comparison to some countries we are well off."
Mr Hodgson says that, while many colleges have international offices and offer students placements abroad, the scale of Norton Radstock college's links is unusual. "The key to involvement is the commitment of senior managers," he said.
"For those entering the game, the bureaucracy behind European funding is quite daunting. However, once you have overcome the initial fear and build up experience, it becomes easier."