It’s easy for policymakers to see colleges as simply a source of skills; the means by which young people emerge with the knowledge and attributes they need for the world of work. Positioning colleges as engines of social mobility is, therefore, an attractive prospect.
But this all too often comes at the expense of remembering one of the most fundamental characteristics of colleges up and down the land: they are, literally and figuratively, at the heart of their communities.
Take Chesterfield College, for instance: it began life as Chesterfield and Brampton Mechanics’ Institute in 1841. Some 177 years later, it still serves its local population. Colleges reflect the people that they employ and teach. When communities suffer, colleges inevitably suffer, too. And vice versa.
It is therefore painfully predictable that mental health problems afflicting people of all ages and walks of life are becoming increasingly evident in colleges. As the annual survey of principals by the Association of Colleges in partnership with Tes makes clear, there has been a significant increase in mental health conditions among college students, both diagnosed and – more troublingly – undisclosed.
This trend has emerged in a period of cuts to college budgets, leaving principals with more work to do to support their learners but less money to do it with. Institutions such as Reaseheath College – which has built a team of eight trained counsellors able to respond to learners’ needs far more quickly than the NHS – deserve huge credit.
But, despite the excellent work done by the likes of former AoC president Ian Ashman and East Coast College chief executive Stuart Rimmer to raise the profile of mental health, many difficulties remain. Let’s hope that the efforts by the AoC and others to build relationships with health bodies and support agencies leads to the extra support that colleges and – most importantly – their learners so badly need.
Stephen Exley is the Tes FE editor