Let's be proud of our social assets

13th February 2009 at 00:00

It seems to me that further education's success in higher education reflects colleges at their best. The richness and diversity of colleges means that we can widen participation, raise standards and respond to individuals and business without being fazed by apparently competing, if not conflicting, demands. Yet it is our complexity and diversity that seems to give policy-makers such difficulty.

Our colleges will have different strengths and characteristics as we are inevitably shaped by the place. Incorporation in 1993, a new funding body in 2001 and now the machinery of Government changes mean we must constantly consider the implications of change. Basic questions about the shape of leadership teams, staff skills and the quality of our resources and buildings will be continually reviewed.

So what does all this mean for learners? They will turn to their FE college for a variety of reasons.

They are increasingly the first choice for so many young people because they are attracted by the adult environment, the depth and breadth of the curriculum on offer and the enriched experience of being a college student - whether in terms of culture, sport, trips and visits, or the focus on the workplace.

For adults, the college offers a way back into jobs, higher education and the chance to improve their CV or their quality of life. Since the start of the year, we are seeing a rise in the number of people who have been made redundant, or who fear redundancy, contacting us for help. They trust colleges to meet their needs.

Research shows colleges are more socially inclusive than other parts of education. Of just one group of Access to Higher Education mature students at St Helens College, more than 90 per cent will be the first family member to enter higher education. The Association of Colleges' own research shows that 9 per cent of HE entrants are studying in FE colleges. Linking that to my own experience, 60 per cent of the college's full-time HE students last year were from deprived backgrounds.

FE colleges are strategically placed to tackle participation and progression through our relationship with schools and universities. Our active engagement in local 14-19 partnerships, including in many cases the direct delivery of 14-16 provision, means we help young people make informed choices about their future and start to understand that there is more than one route into higher education.

Emerging opportunities from sponsoring academies, or engaging as trust partners, create an exciting environment to work cross-phase, including at primary level, to make a reality of personalisation, raising aspiration and extending progression opportunities. Equally, our relationship with the universities through validation of our higher education, joint work with employers and the lifelong learning networks benefit learners. Our enhanced understanding and delivery of higher education informs all of our curriculum as we improve our ability to support people to become critical, independent learners.

As the Campaign for Learning explored in its policy pamphlet Higher Education and the Cuckoo in the Nest, there is a need for further policy reviews in terms of financial support for part-time learners, whether aged 17-20 or 20-plus, and in terms of the curriculum available to support progression.

In the meantime, let us be proud of FE colleges as social assets and the difference we make to the lives of so many students.

Pat Bacon, Principal of St Helens College, Merseyside, a member of the 157 Group, and board member of the Association of Colleges.

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