From education to employment

Time for FE governors to stand up

Ruby Parmar, Chair of Governors at Milton Keynes College Group emphasises the vital role of Further Education (FE) and urges FE governors to raise awareness about the sector’s transformative impact and underlining its societal value.

Ignorance of FE’s Vital Role: A Governor’s Confession

When I was first asked to become a governor at Milton Keynes College Group, I confess I was largely ignorant of the complex and vital role Further Education plays in our society. A few years on and now I’m the chair, and I realise my lack of knowledge is almost universal among business leaders, politicians and journalists.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “a place for other people’s children” in conversations about the FE sector, and I believe it is that blind spot in the eye of the establishment which represents our greatest obstacle in achieving the success our communities deserve.

FE Colleges: A Lifeline for Diverse Learners

I hold a number of non-executive roles in a range of businesses and community organisations, but my position at the college elicits a passion to raise awareness of the FE sector and all it does and achieves. In many ways, I think colleges are the most responsible educational institutions in any area. When I see the lengths the staff go to to safeguard learners, to support them in whatever difficult positions life has placed them, to allow them to discover themselves in a safe environment, I feel nothing but pride.

I sometimes wonder, if we didn’t have such an institution in Milton Keynes, where would all these young (and not so young) people go? What would they do? How would they move forward to build good lives and careers? Schools and universities just can’t do what we do. How would a school or university react to a learner whose work was suffering because their family could not afford their weekly shopping, or one experiencing digital poverty, or depression, or loneliness? These are issues FE colleges provide support for every day, and we need to shout about it as much as we do about our success with T Levels or apprenticeships. FE offers a lifeline for so many. We provide education in line with our Fairer Futures Strategy and are proud that 95% of our learners go on to further study with us or other HE providers, or go straight into employment.

I was speaking to a government minister recently about the work of the College, and it was clear they weren’t aware of the range of FE’s work in the community and of all the other things that go on outside the classroom. They could talk about figures and funding, certainly, but could not, or did not, talk about the pastoral care and signposting which is a key role FE plays.

Highlighting FE’s Impact

What people with no contact with the sector don’t understand is how we do so much for so little. They don’t know that a dedicated and professional teacher at a college is almost certainly earning thousands of pounds less a year than they would if they moved to a local sixth form. And how does that happen anyway? How is teaching the same subjects to young people in what can be a far more challenging environment than a school somehow worth so much less? Simply put, it is allowed to happen because of that blind spot.

The thing is, once you manage to get the message across, to open the eyes of people in power to what colleges do, and what we can achieve, they quickly become converts. At Milton Keynes we have a great relationship with a particular national construction company, Careys. They really get it. They understand the value we bring to the community, and they also appreciate how useful we can be to them in terms of providing that talent pipeline they need. These are the kinds of relationships we governors have to work to develop. We need to preach to the unconverted and make them believers.

Things are far from perfect in my city, and we have a lot of people who still don’t know enough about us. A politician recently organised an event around knife crime involving the police, the council, charities and so on. Nobody thought to call us. We have various schemes where we partner with the police to combat the problem. Our drama students have produced and performed plays around the city on the subject. We’ve introduced screening arches and surveyed our learners about how the increased likelihood of detection makes them feel safer on campus, and also less likely to bring a weapon here themselves. We’ve probably done as much as any other organisation in Milton Keynes to minimise knife crime, but still, we were out of mind for the event organisers.

The point is, the people who need to know about FE, aren’t going to become better informed on their own. They won’t wake up one morning and suddenly understand our value. We as governors have to take the battle to them. Most governors are fairly well-connected people; it’s how they came to be approached for the role in the first place. We need to make it our mission not just to attend our meetings, read our board papers and act as a sounding board for our executives. We need to get out there. Leverage those contacts. Knock on doors. Charm and cajole the people we know to come to visit us to see just how transformative college can be.

After all, if we don’t do it, who will? The alternative is for these places we so strongly believe in to remain forevermore, unsung, misunderstood and underfunded. It’s our choice.

By Ruby Parmar, Chair of Governors at Milton Keynes College Group

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  1. Thanks for writing this Ruby Parmar – colleges are the overlooked, misunderstood gem of education and every community, as you so eloquently point out. The role of governors in keeping the college strategy clear and making good progress has to be enhanced if the governing body spends some time on the college profile, engagement with key decision makers, opening up to become better understood. Great to see you and your college doing that. Thank you and happy #CollegesWeek2024