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Colleges are pivotal to their communities, transforming lives through learning. It is time to let them shine.

Updated: 19.10.23

Colleges are pivotal to their communities, transforming lives through learning. It is time to let them shine.

Colleges Week 2023 celebrates the vital role that the further education (FE) sector plays in strengthening communities and the economy.

Here, Angela Foulkes, Chief Executive and Principal of The Sheffield College, explains why FE colleges are pivotal to their local communities.

Colleges Week highlights the brilliant work that goes on in FE colleges in England to transform lives through learning and the phenomenal staff who make it all possible.

Colleges are anchor institutions in their communities. Local economies rely on the jobs that colleges create due to them educating and training students in the qualifications and skills that businesses need.

If we think about the education frontline, the FE sector is right up there shaping the workers of tomorrow and upskilling and retraining those already in the workforce.

At The Sheffield College, we educate and train around 13,000 young people and adults a year to prepare them to go further in their careers.

Our vision is to be leaders in technical and academic education creating exceptional opportunities for the communities that we serve. As one of the largest standalone colleges in England, we will always champion our sector and fight for investment in our students and staff.

Our relevance for businesses and the local economy is about ensuring that we not only provide the skills needed now but support employers to innovate. One example of this is the shift to low carbon sectors and green jobs. Colleges have an important role advising businesses on the sustainability skills agenda and green training, as well as enabling students to develop those skills.

Sustainability is one of the points that we have been highlighting with guests during Colleges Week which, this year, has run for two weeks from 6th until 20th October. We are pleased that some of the city’s civic leaders, employers and education chiefs have supported the campaign and taken part in skills tasters and college tours.

As part of our green curriculum, for example, we want to transform Olive Grove Campus into an Advanced Technology Centre for the city. The campus estate is set to expand following the approval of £2.6 million from the Department for Education for 2023/24 to meet the latest employer skills. These skills include the shift of study, within the motor vehicle industry, from traditional petrol and diesel vehicles to sustainability and the use of electric and hybrid ones.

This September 2023 also saw the launch of our first cohort of T Level students. T Levels are two-year technical qualifications developed with employers to prepare students for work, further training, or study, and are equivalent to three A Levels.  T Levels students spend 80% of their learning at college and 20% on a 45-day industry placement. We are pleased to involve our employer partners in this new qualification.

According to the Association of Colleges (AoC), the sectors where skills shortages are acute are those that require Level 4 and Level 5 skills and qualifications. In September 2023, we unveiled three Higher Technical Qualifications in Computing, Construction and Health at Levels 4 and 5, which have been developed with employers.

In addition to reducing skills gaps, colleges contribute to improving social mobility, combatting inequality and providing better opportunities to their local communities.

Approximately, 60% of our students live in a disadvantaged postcode area. More than 20% of our students declare a learning difficulty or disability and a significant proportion of our 16 to 18-year-olds receive financial support.

Too many of our students live in or on the edge of poverty and experience higher than average levels of ill health and poor educational attainment, exacerbated by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

In order to address that, we ensure that our students start at the right level course for them and have the opportunity to progress whilst we provide a range of careers, financial and wellbeing support.

In our experience, further and higher education drives opportunities as well as confidence and self-belief. For some of our young people and adults, their progress onto university level qualifications via our UC Sheffield course offer means achieving more than they initially thought was possible.

As part of our wider commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion, we believe that we have a duty to address issues relating to class and social mobility if we are to deliver our mission of transforming lives through learning.

Whilst we are committed to increasing our positive impact, we face a number of challenges after more than a decade of funding cuts.

Further education and sixth form colleges in England have seen a long term decline in spending per student relative to schools. This disparity is one of the key findings in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’(IFS) latest annual report on education spending in 2022.

Another newly published IFS report, in October 2023, also highlights that total public spending on adult skills has fallen by 31% since its peak 10 years-ago. These challenges are now exacerbated by soaring energy prices, inflationary pressures, teaching recruitment issues and a rise in the 16 to 18 population.

During Colleges Week, principals are attending a House of Commons reception, organised by the AoC, to champion the sector and raise the issue of fair funding. Ultimately, we want to see a 10-year strategy for post 16 education and training that gives colleges stability by enabling them to plan for the longer term.

We want to see a shift so that individuals can access lifelong learning provision throughout their lives to keep pace with changing skills.  

We need more flexibilities for employers, particularly on apprenticeships given that the majority of businesses in our region are SMEs. For example, the Apprenticeship Levy could be used to fund other qualifications such as Higher Technical Qualifications.

With greater government investment and a longer term funding plan, the FE sector can provide a stronger boost to the country’s productivity levels. Here in Sheffield, we want to go further and faster in achieving our ambitions for our students and staff. We will continue to lobby for our college and the future of our city.

Follow @SheffCol @AoC_Info #LoveOurColleges, #CollegesWeek.

 

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