Our aim: raising national profile and status of FE
Yet, says the principal of Nelson and Colne College in Lancashire, success stories like this in further education often get overlooked.
Dr Birkinshaw has just been appointed chair of the FE Reputation Steering Group, representing a range of organisations including colleges, sixth-form colleges, the 157 group of colleges, the Association of Colleges, the Association of Learning Providers, independent and work-based learning providers, the Learning and Skills Council and the Government.
The need to build the reputation of further education was first raised by Sir Andrew Foster, whose 2005 review stated: "FE colleges have a low profile on the national stage ... reputation is the key factor in the ability of the sector to attract support and resources."
It was a view echoed last year by Lord Leitch when he called for an overhaul of the system of vocational education.
This relatively low profile is in contrast to the status colleges enjoy in their local communities. An ICM poll carried out for the Association of Colleges showed that 84 per cent of respondents believed successful colleges were as important to the success of UK business as good universities.
For Dr Birkinshaw the work of the steering group is about transferring that local reputation to a national stage. She says: "The sector does get the recognition it deserves - but only among local people and local employers. They tend to be quite possessive about colleges and hold the sector in high regard."
One of the perceptions she is keen to change is that the FE system is a second-best option. She says many forget that colleges are one of the main providers of A-level courses - one third of A-levels in the UK are taken at colleges - and, in many respects, offer a wider range of subjects.
"A lot of people think that school leavers go to sixth-form and FE colleges for a second chance," she says. "That's not the case. My college, for instance, serves the tertiary education needs of the local area and delivers a lot of the post-16 education."
Dr Birkinshaw, 47, is a Hull University music and English graduate with a PGCE from Durham and has spent her life working in FE, a career she has found immensely rewarding.
The sense of vocation shared by the sector deserves, she says, to be recognised. "Part of the work of the steering group is to ensure colleges have a raised profile among, for instance, employers' groups so that the status of FE lecturers can be raised, she says."
The group aims to set up a network of advocates for FE, not only people in the public eye with positive experiences of the sector, but also those who have benefited. "What we want to get across is that FE changes people's lives and make a real impact," Dr Birkinshaw says.
The group's work will include research into perceptions of the FE system. This will be conducted by IposMORI, which will survey groups such as employers, training providers and the Government along with individuals in FE.
The Association of Colleges has itself sought to equip senior managers to build their colleges' reputations at a local level through its Certificate in Leadership for Reputation.
A spokesman said: "While colleges and the AoC work hard to promote further education locally, regionally and nationally, more can always be done to help the sector achieve the recognition it deserves."
Leading article, page 4.