Students in two of the most deprived areas of Wales have started the term in new multi-million-pound college campuses as part of an investment in FE of more than pound;70 million.
The former coal mining town of Nantgarw in Rhondda Cynon Taff has seen the largest single investment in FE in Wales, with Coleg Morgannwg's pound;40 million campus opening its doors to 3,000 students this month.
In Blaenau Gwent, the pound;33.5 million Learning Zone campus has opened on a former steelworks site in the town of Ebbw Vale, giving thousands of students access to education and training.
Both colleges hope to entice local students with a range of vocational and academic courses and advanced facilities, and will support efforts to boost their local economies.
The Nantgarw campus, made possible through a mix of Welsh government and European funding, has already led to a threefold increase in applications to Coleg Morgannwg for the 2012-13 academic year. In addition to traditional vocational courses, Coleg Morgannwg is now the largest provider of AS and A levels in the area, with 24 subjects on offer as well as the skills-led Welsh Baccalaureate qualification.
It is also the only college in Wales to offer the Welsh government's Pathways to Apprenticeship scheme in science following the creation of five new science labs at Nantgarw.
"This is the first time in Rhondda Cynon Taff we have been able to have the breadth of the curriculum in one building," said principal Judith Evans. "Before this development our students would have had to have travelled between schools to get this sort of offer. There are some highly deprived wards in the area we serve, and we want to make sure all students who come to us have the same opportunities.
"We have to make sure that our students understand they are just as good as anybody else and they can achieve. But we are up against obstacles from students, such as lack of funding, transport and, more importantly in some cases, a lack of family support."
Ms Evans said the environment at Nantgarw felt more like a university than an FE college, which she hopes will have a positive impact on students' outlook and attainment. The college has also reached out to local employers in an effort to be responsive to their needs, with staff visiting local businesses to find out what they want from students.
"You have to go out there and be proactive and work closely with employers because they won't necessarily come to you," Ms Evans said. "It can only pay dividends for your students in the end."
The Blaenau Gwent Learning Zone operated by Coleg Gwent, Wales' largest FE college, offers full and part-time courses, including a range of higher education courses through the Universities Heads of the Valleys Institute (UHOVI) and the University of Wales, Newport. Students will benefit from specialist facilities for construction, science, hair and beauty, performing arts, art and media, and IT. The campus will support efforts to boost Blaenau Gwent's economy by providing more skills locally and promoting business start-ups.
Both new developments arrive against the backdrop of a wider post-16 transformation agenda in Wales, which has seen a series of mergers and closures bring the total number of FE institutions down from 25 to 19 in under five years.
The transformation has been driven by education minister Leighton Andrews, who has made no secret of his desire to see fewer institutions in Wales, but offering higher standards of education, and to put an end to "excessive duplication" of courses.
We have to make sure that our students understand they are just as good as anybody else and they can achieve.
Photo: Coleg Morgannwg's pound;40 million Nantgarw campus. Photo credit: Coleg Morgannwg