More than just production lines for qualifications

13th March 2009 at 00:00

Colleges pride themselves, and rightly so, on being places where lives are transformed for the better. They are also enjoying a burgeoning reputation, after a long period where it seemed their efforts were not appreciated. So they could be forgiven for wanting to accentuate the positive.

But the London region of the Association of Colleges is to be commended for addressing an immensely sensitive issue of student safety in its report on the danger of youth gangs and how to tackle them. In doing so, it risks outsiders gaining the mistaken impression that colleges have a "gang problem". But it is right to take this risk, because the issue is too important to be ignored.

Violence from teenagers is not a college problem: it is society's problem. However, because colleges are often asked to take on the challenges that no one else will shoulder, the problems of society often end up at the doors of FE.

And so it should be: one of the greatest aspects of further education, its real moral purpose, is its capacity to offer people at risk of dropping out of society a way to find a rewarding, purposeful life.

Such people include the student on Lewisham College's offender learning programme who, when he finished his course and found a job, promised to quit his gang and the world of crime.

If a college takes on a student like this, it cannot isolate him from his former life at a stroke. His associations follow him through the college gates - sometimes literally, as staff who have had to deal with outsiders on campus will testify. But you cannot prepare for all eventualities without talking openly about the difficulties such a student might present.

The responsible approach of colleges demands a similar degree of seriousness from the public and the media. Colleges' willingness to confront the problem should not be used against them, as a way of saying it is their problem.

The issue is also a reminder of the breadth of the work in colleges. As Sue Rimmer, chair of the Association of Colleges London region, says: "We are not just large training providers."

There has been a tendency to view the FE sector as a machine to produce qualifications. This issue stands as a reminder to government that colleges educate their students in more ways than just giving them certificates.

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