Sometimes I think we’re so caught up in the worldwide web that we’ve forgotten the importance of the local neighbourhood webs we live in. Working in further education is a daily reminder: colleges are woven deep into the fabric of their local communities.
Further education was spun out across post-war Britain alongside universal secondary education as part of the new welfare state. Across the UK, local authorities invested in new colleges to meet local training and education needs, and the curriculum they offered was closely linked to the local labour market.
Reflecting the oddities of regional economies, some courses were wonderfully quirky. I’ve worked in colleges offering horology, nautical science, scuba diving, window dressing, mortuary science and wildlife photography. My current college offers ophthalmology courses and railway engineering apprenticeships.
But FE’s localism isn’t just some nostalgic echo of the past; it’s a contemporary fact. Research for the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that most college students travel no more than 10km to get to college. Only those who have chosen a career specialism are prepared to travel further to find specific training. For most, time and cost are too much of a barrier to doing anything other than attend their nearest college.
'Colleges are like a general store'
So colleges primarily serve people in local communities, especially those on lower incomes and those with family responsibilities. Like a general store, they do a bit of everything to meet the widest possible range of customer needs.
This inevitably means they don’t have the most efficient delivery model and will often subsidise courses even when student numbers are small. Unlike private providers, who have a mass production model of apprenticeship training, colleges typically look after apprentices learning all sorts of skills in a variety of small local companies.
But while localism may not be the most cost-effective strategy, it is, in my view, essential that colleges remain, like Spider-Man, friendly neighbourhood superheroes. If social mobility is to be anything more than wishful thinking, disadvantaged communities need well-resourced, high-quality education and training available on their doorstep.
This implies two things. First, the FE funding model needs to enable small local colleges to thrive. Second, if that doesn’t happen, and the current trend towards huge, merged institutions continues, a new structure is needed, similar to the multi-academy trust model in the school sector, to enable college federations to realise economies of scale without individual colleges losing their vital connection to local communities.
Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, is a bright but disadvantaged child raised by his aunt in modest circumstances. If he had been born in England, he would be a typical FE student. And just like Spider-Man, colleges in the UK have a hidden super power, too – the power of localism. The web of local connections is invisible but strong: cut it, and you will fatally weaken FE colleges.
Andy Forbes is principal and chief executive of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London