What makes FE colleges different and special?
This seems to be a relevant question to ask in the wake of Colleges Week when colleges have been rightly celebrated for all that they achieve, much of which still goes unnoticed by those who don’t have direct contact with them, including policymakers.
Determining what makes FE colleges different is harder than might be supposed.
To many policymakers they are ‘a jack of all trades’ and confusing and confounding to outsiders.’ When I looked for the origin of the term ‘further education,’ the first reference that I could find was in a 1916 Board of Education document, referring to ‘non-compulsory education not delivered in a university.’ From that first use, additional roles were added under the heading of further education, including adult and community education, apprenticeships, technical education and sub-degree higher education. The term has, over time, become a catch-all, and further education has seemingly become a receptacle for all education that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Reflecting this, the Wikipedia definition of FE is ‘education that is not delivered in a school or a university.’ Hence, FE is defined by what it is not, and not in a way that conveys a distinct identity.
In searching for more positive defining characteristics that are particular to FE and to FE Colleges, two of them come to mind.
First, FE colleges serve a place and are for that place. Universities will claim that they are important to communities and that they contribute to ‘place-making’; whilst this is true, the courses of very few universities are shaped by their locality. In essence, most universities are of their place more than they are for their place. Likewise, schools are similarly important elements of their communities, but their curricula, even in the case of academies, are primarily dictated by a national curriculum model. Contrast this with an FE college whose curricula offer is primarily driven by a combination of student demand and local or regional employer demand. FE colleges are, in a much more direct way, influenced by local needs. This need for them to be for their communities is reinforced in the current FE White Paper and in the Act proceeding through Parliament at present.
Second, and in a related way, the best FE colleges are both student-centric and employer-responsive. The mediation that colleges provide between student demand and employer need is an essential element is never perfect and a constant challenge. This challenge is, though, an essential element in a system that has student choice at its heart, whilst also seeking to promote local prosperity and increased productivity. It was absolutely right, therefore, that Colleges Week should celebrate the invaluable role that FE colleges have in supporting students and employers at the local and regional levels.
Conceiving FE colleges in this differentiated way is also important when those colleges draw up their strategies. Amongst all the things that colleges may be called upon to do, or opportunities that they may consider pursuing, the core role of serving a place and providing education that meets the needs of both students and employers, provides a compass to steer the way ahead. Having been involved in helping stabilise a couple of colleges who have been in difficulty, distraction from this core role has been a major factor and re-focussing activity has been a significant aspect in their recovery. But when I have looked at many FE college mission statements, this core and differentiating function is missing. Instead many statements are more diffuse, quite often referring to an intent to enable every student to realise their potential and dreams. Whilst no educator would reject this aim, it is one that is shared with schools or universities. It does not provide focus on what FE colleges, in particular, and distinctively add to the education mix.