From education to employment

In Conversation with Ruth Gilchrist, Youth and Community Worker

Further Education is growing. More and more people both rely on it for their educationa and training, and for their employment as trainers, instructors, administrators. With this series, Further Education Talks Back, we hope to give the thoughts and opinions of the people actually working on the front line of Further Education the attention they deserve.

Following the recent attention drawn by the success of the Student Project at the YMCA in Newcastle, we asked Ruth Gilchrist, Youth and Community worker at the Newcastle YMCA and responsible for the project, some questions about her time and experiences in the Further Education sector.

Q: “What first interested you about the Further Education sector?”

Ruth: “Further education has been growing over the past 30 years in both student numbers and in the breadth of courses they offer. It caters for more of the 16 + population than schools and universities put together and covers everything from degree level engineering to cake decoration yet is often referred to as the Cinderella Service, not recognised as mainstream and considered neither schooling nor higher education. I was interested in how the YMCA could work with these young people an what it had to offer them.”

Q: “How has your job developed day ““ to ““ day over the past few years?”

Ruth: “I originally came in to do the research ““ invited by the College Chaplin Tresna Fletcher, (now left) and worked across college through the Student Services department and the Chaplaincy. One I”d written the proposal I worked about half time in the college to develop it. This work concentrated on three main areas a) work with student’s union (the only democratic representation for Students ); b) work with students living away from home ““ international students and those living in college accommodation, and c) outreach work on the campus with groups and individuals around interests and raising debate.”

Q: “What is the one overriding issue for you in today’s FE sector? How would you like to see it resolved?”

Ruth: “There is a lack of investment or value placed on keeping good staff and teachers, this is across the education sector as brining funding in becomes so important to survive the effects of government target setting make it difficult to plan long-term. E.g. in the six or seven years I”ve been here I”ve seen 4 Principals, 4 Heads of Student’s Services, three teams of learning mentors, and 2 chaplains leave. As Ainley and Bailey point out FE is a Business of Learning.

“There are many excellent people working in FE that don”t seem to get the time to develop student centred learning and build on what is their best commodity ““ the students themselves. Time and resources need to be devoted to FE and its purpose. It interesting to note that according to recent research the happiest people in jobs are hairdressers the least happy are social workers and very near them are teachers.”

Q: “What is your proudest moment or achievement in your work?”

Ruth: “We brought a large exhibition to the college shortly after the Asylum seekers law was brought in illustrating the plight of people seeking asylum. It was called “Far from Home” and had the interactive Fortress Europe display as part of it. We worked with Newcastle University’s STAR (Student Action for Refugees) group to make it accessible to students of the college, schools and outside youth groups. We ran it for a week with workshops happening every evening and during the day for college students and schools so as a large event this was a big achievement.

“Its aim was to raise the issues of asylum seekers through photographs and interactive displays and educate people to the facts at a time when racist feelings were being stirred up and the press were very negative.”

“But perhaps the students own achievements are more important. Students work with us on volunteering opportunities and its great to see how they grow from doing things they want to do or are interested in. We involve the students in doing things for themselves ““ with some support. Student have raised money for charity, have worked on summer camps with young people from the east end of London through Toynbee Halls Stepney Children’s Fund, volunteered as youth workers, run music events, run dj workshops, volunteered with Greenbelt (arts festival)”“ last year 6 volunteers went to Greenbelt and ran the shower blocks for the YMCA, this year 12 students are volunteering for Greenbelt.

“10 students are going to the Make Poverty History workshops in Edinburgh through YCare, students have become peer mentors with students living away from home and have worked with students practicing English through our conversation group. Students have worked on and written issues or parts of the International newsletter and the volunteers newsletter we produce and have stood for election for SU and become active in the NUS and other organisations. 3 young people have had a nine month Gap volunteer experience with us through the Rank Foundation. The last Gap worker developed a student theatre group while the second worked with volunteer and the first with refugees.”

Q: “Do you feel that the general public often misunderstand the importance of the FE sector? How can this be changed, if so?”

Ruth: “I don”t think people realise how big the sector is or how under funded. It is not given importance by government so it’s hard to think how the public can appreciate a sector that for decades has been undervalued and under funded. It is asked to expand and achieve impossible targets in basic skills etc.”

Q: “Do you have any further thoughts on the sector, both inside and outside the areas covered?”

Ruth: “I think the great strength of this sector is the diversity of its student population. There are in large colleges like Newcastle people from all areas of life. Such as talented people in the arts, people from different cultures and countries, people with different needs, different ages and different experiences ““ all have something to offer and would benefit in working together the more able with the less and each would learn from the experience.

“Our project is an informal education project and I feel this approach has much to offer ““ through working in canteens and corridors with groups and individuals we can talk and reach students that can otherwise become isolated this is however difficult work to maintain as outcomes are not easily shown. We know that through this approach many of the other things we do couldn”t happen getting the balance is the difficult part (between putting on activities and events; being in the students union for students who drop in or need help and going out on outreach).

“The aims of our project are to work with staff and students; to create a student friendly community within the college; to support and encourage the Student Union to develop as a democratic voice for students; and to promote a positive image of young people as citizens and contributors to college, community and society.

“Sadly these are not the main priorities set for FE and so there are problems especially in funding this area of student life. Perhaps more opportunities will come through the citizenship curriculum and extended schools? Our project has been funded by Newcastle YMCA, the Rank Foundation and Newcastle College ““ we hope to be developing the Gap Volunteer side of this project in the future.”

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Newcastle YMCA and especially Ruth Gilchrist for her help in this, and wish both her and the YMCA all the best for the future.

Jethro Marsh

What does FE mean to you? Tell all in the FE Blog

Related Articles