As we approach the end of the second Colleges Week (after the enormously successful inaugural #LoveOurColleges campaign last year), now, more than ever, we should focus on what FE means to all of us.
Having worked in secondary education for most of my career, it was only when I started working in further education a little over two years ago that I was first able to witness the life-changing impact that FE has on so many students.
Educating 2.2 million people every year, in countless qualifications and disciplines, colleges offer everything from opportunities to upskill to precious new career lifelines, and everything in between.
To many, FE offers a change of profession or a chance at the dream career. For some, it offers the simplicity of a second chance and, with 87 per cent of students in education, training or work within six months of finishing their course, it also clearly means supporting and guiding students to apply the skills they have learned.
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The enormous impact of colleges
Whatever it means to you, further education has an enormous impact not only on the millions of students who experience it each year, but also on the 116,000-plus staff who work within it.
Whether as teacher, lecturer, support staff member, leader, manager or principal, it isn’t only students who are given opportunities to achieve. Many of those working within FE may never have intended to work in education. Having spent just a little time in the sector, I for one have seen the lasting and immense impact it has on students, staff and local communities.
I’ve seen first-hand the effect of transformative relationships, which take students from believing they will never achieve (having had negative previous experiences in education) to beginning to plan a different life through starting a course in further education.
Within just the past two weeks, an adult student stopped a colleague and me to thank us, as she had gone from having no interest in politics whatsoever to now thoroughly understanding and discussing Brexit, communism and neo-liberalism around the family dinner table and (for the first time in her life) she has become involved in local, regional and national politics. That’s the difference FE makes.
The difference FE makes
FE is like no other educational sector simply because of the lasting and hugely meaningful relationships that are struck up with students, across departments and throughout the country. Having worked in secondary schools, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much collaboration takes place between colleges with the express goal of sharing good practice and continuing to innovate, with one goal at the heart of everything: creating the best possible experience for all students.
No off-rolling here, no obsession with data, no fixation with increased workload, just a simple singular aim to help as many people of different ages and backgrounds as possible.
And so, #LoveOurColleges comes into sharp focus. For every student who succeeds in FE, for every engineering or hairdressing lecturer who discovers a passion for a role they may have long thought beyond them, for every community that is helped by the work of their local FE college, there are still those who fall between the cracks that exist due to a lack of funding and support from successive governments.
Thankfully, it does appear that at least some change is coming – in part due to wonderful initiatives such as #LoveOurColleges and those in FE finally starting to realise that the difference they make should be celebrated as loudly and proudly as possible.
But more needs to be done. If FE is to continue to deliver the world-class training and support it currently provides, much more needs to be done. There are two ingredients that are needed to remedy this and any problem: money and time. And FE is short on both.
With a lack of college funding finally garnering national attention, it must continue to be increased if colleges are to continue to help students to achieve their goals. Part of this must also be put aside for the deserving staff within FE, firstly through adjusting pay (which in some instances hasn’t seen a rise in years) and also to offer students more time in classrooms, on placements and in vocational settings. In the UK, students have on average 15 hours less contact time than their European counterparts.
FE also needs to do more to promote itself. There are few outside of its walls that know of the wonderful impact it has. FE shouldn’t obsess over needless, pointless comparisons to schools and HE, it should be confident of its own place – at the heart of communities and transforming lives.
Jonny Kay is head of English and maths at Hartlepool College