Could the ‘Love Our Colleges’ Campaign Really Change FE?

This week is the annual ‘Colleges Week’ celebration, led by the Association of Colleges (AoC) and a staple in the diary of Further Education bods across the country.

Every year, it gets pencilled in by Marketing staff and senior executives as another date to try and get their organisation’s small voice heard amongst the bellowing shouts of higher, secondary, and primary education.

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It’s fair to say, FE has always been the poorer cousin of the sector, which is odd given the impact the 266 colleges make in England, educating and training over 2.2 million people every year.

As someone who followed the traditional education pathway of secondary school and A-Levels and then on to university, I was guilty of this condescension myself when I first worked in FE. I would probably go so far as to say I was a bit of a snob. Like many, I saw it as the route that’s trodden by those that can’t (or won’t) try to make the grade. How wrong was I!

The decade I worked in FE communications taught me a considerable amount about the workings of this often-overlooked chunk of the education sector. More importantly, it showed me the sheer resilience, bravery, and heart of those who are damned if circumstance is going to define them.

The majority of my career has been spent working in, or with, higher and further education marketing departments, pushing the exponential benefits of knowledge. We’ve recruited youngsters from the toughest of backgrounds and witnessed the transformative power of adult education. I’ve covered incredible stories over the years and spoken to countless students whose journeys have been nothing short of astonishing:

  • The lad from the roughest part of Chapeltown in Leeds who was accepted onto a Media degree at King’s College London.
  • The mature, Rwandan student who had escaped genocide to retrain as a physiotherapist in the UK but hadn’t seen family in Belgium and Germany in 5 years (since all being flung to a variety of European ports in a violent storm).
  • The anonymous mother who was going back to college after escaping domestic violence, to make a better life for herself and her kids.
  • The teenager who was the third generation to work in manual labour but was determined to break free and become an airline pilot, against all the odds.

These people have stayed with me. Their stories will resonate for a long time to come and I’m proud of where I’ve worked and of my small contribution. Yet, a decade on, and in spite of these inspirational tutors and their students – often leaping a social gulf towards betterment – it seems the FE sector is in a worse place than ever before.

Teachers pay

According to the AoC:
Over the last decade, colleges have had to deal with an average 30% funding cut, whilst costs have increased dramatically. This has resulted in a drastic drop in learning opportunities for adults, fewer hours of teaching and support for young people, and teacher pay at less than 80% of schools and support staff seeing no increase in pay for several years.”

I can testify to all of this having witnessed rounds of annual redundancies and course/site closures at regional colleges, as they all battle to attain ever-higher targets against unrelenting cuts in funding. It has been depressing to see colleagues with decades of experience in FE, and an abundance of passion, eventually defecting to HE or secondary tutoring from the pressure of it all.

This year, however, the AoC has taken a new tack with a concerted campaign during Colleges Week that has gained genuine groundswell. The hashtag #LoveOurColleges was used in over 460 Tweets just yesterday afternoon, from top educationists to TV figures like Steph McGovern of BBC Breakfast.

The premise of the campaign is simple: shine a spotlight on FE inequality, primarily in relation to funding. As a key part of the #LoveOurColleges week of activities, organisers held a coordinated day of lobbying in parliament yesterday (Wednesday 17 October) by college principals, staff and students, with the education unions organising a march and rally in London to amplify the message further.

An online petition for fairer College funding is also gaining momentum which I’d urge as many people as possible to sign, and media coverage this year has been brilliant, from interviews on Channel 4 news to segments on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire show.

Sadly, I couldn’t be in London, but I was delighted to see former colleagues in attendance from Leeds City College and a show of support from Leeds College of Building and Bradford College amongst others.

I’m doing my bit vocally and online where I can, and I genuinely hope this is the tipping point that finally gives FE the recognition and backing it desperately needs and deserves.

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