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Why colleges are so much more than a 'second-chance saloon'

Colleges' reputation as home of second chances doesn't capture the commitment and passion within them, says David Hughes

love our colleges week FE agency resilience

The idea that young people need to be more resilient is a popular thing to say at the moment, and in some ways and at first glance, it’s not such a bad notion. Given the high stakes, almost constant assessment in public exams that young people face, a lack of resilience really does look like it is a potentially big problem.

Beyond that, the world they are growing up in looks more and more complex, the labour market is extremely competitive, technology is transforming work and lives at ever-increasing rates, violence and knife crime are on the rise and political uncertainties abound.

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Safety devices

The trouble is, I’ve never liked the connotations of the word. It’s as if we are content that the education system, our society and work will always throw enormous threats and challenges at young people and adults. Given that tough environment, so the argument goes, we need to then provide young people with some kind of shield, protection, safety devices in order to survive.

If we are content with that then we need to ask ourselves why we’ve given up on developing a better world. You see, rather than develop resilience I’ve always preferred the concept of agency. Resilience is about being able to cope with what is being done to you; agency suggests being able to understand, shape, control and develop the environment you live and work in.

I’m not talking about some utopia here but I believe that education is about developing the capacity of everyone to act independently, make free choices and understand the impact of those actions and choices on themselves and the people, communities and world they live in. That agency is of course constrained in all sorts of ways – the structures and institutions of our society, power relationships, poverty, prejudice and so on.

Empowering education

But that’s the beauty of the notion – those constraints, when properly understood, can change. With empowering education, people can affect them and make the world a better place. They are the change-makers. I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t believe that, I could not do my job.

I’ve seen this happen many times, not least in my own work. In my early career, working with community groups, I saw how people were able to start to shape their community. Women worried about the future of their children, cooperative groups fighting for decent housing, tenants’ groups wanting better services from their landlords. In every group I worked with, I saw people learning about the world they lived in, understanding how to affect change and then getting on and leading that change.

It was those experiences and the belief that people can have agency that brought me to further education and to colleges. Colleges are all too often positioned as the second-chance saloon of the education system – if you failed to achieve before, come to college and we’ll give you a second chance. It’s right up there, for me, with the phrase "colleges are the Cinderella sector". There’s truth in both, but neither captures the energy, passion, commitment and darned right doggedness of the colleges I know and love.

Powerlessness and despair

When I started at Association of Colleges, both phrases seemed to be straitjackets on the college sector and on the sector’s confidence in itself. Perceptions of powerlessness and despair about funding were strong after too many years of cuts and rapid policy changes. Colleges had shown their resilience – coping with 30 per cent cuts over a decade and still delivering incredible education and skills for over 2 million people shows that.

The Love Our Colleges campaign we launched in Colleges’ Week last October was our first foray into moving from resilience to agency. Our goals were simple – to raise the profile and understanding of colleges with influencers and decision-makers, particularly in Whitehall. We wanted to position college investment as central to the spending review which is due this year (but which may be delayed because of Brexit).

To achieve it we decided to mobilise our greatest resource – college leaders, staff and students. With 251 colleges we knew that their actions, locally with MPs, employers, students, staff, the media and stakeholders would make the biggest impact. Colleges’ Week was a success because it achieved our principle aims of raising profile and understanding. But the most exciting thing about the week was just how empowered college leaders, unions, staff and students felt. It was their voices that rang so true and penetrated the Whitehall bubble.

Week of action

At the start of the Love Our Colleges local week of action, it is incredible to see colleges acting confidently about their roles, describing how colleges are the best first real chance for so many people who have been ill-served by education. How excellence at outreach and inclusion can sit in the same institution with an incredible record on progression to higher study and into work. How engaging with employers and the latest hi-tech equipment can take people to the highest levels.

Colleges are not just resilient, they have agency. Together, as a sector, we understand the need to promote colleges, to show how colleges are vital to every community and to have a positive solution-focused approach. Colleges cannot always control what happens to them, but they are influencing it and the people in power are responding. Part of this is about owning their future. That’s why we helped establish the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, led by Sir Ian Diamond. The Commission has already made an impact, by providing a focus for everyone who wants colleges to thrive across all four nations of the UK and who recognise the need for change.

The Love Our Colleges campaign and the independent commission show colleges acting the way they have always wanted for their students – with the confidence that their future is as much in their own hands as it is in others; and with an optimism that life can get better.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges. 


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