From education to employment

What is at the heart of Further Education?

Attending the Association of Colleges Annual Conference and Exhibition 2014 recently was mind blowing. Over one thousand leaders from across the UK further education sector together in one place sharing best practice, challenging politicians, understanding policy changes and drinking exceptional amounts of coffee. But this being my third AoC annual conference I found myself looking around wondering, what is at the heart of this? Where is the heart in this?

Sure we had all of the usual drills around the sector, harsh funding challenges, sector insight through research, international benchmarks and endless politicians interviewed in which they are struggling to say anything truly significant around the future for FE. Those things are essential and of course are a big reason why many senior leaders attend the conference. But for me, and I am sure I am not alone here, the best parts of the conference were those that were student led. A tremendous panel of students representing the learner voice were exploring the ‘what they want from May 2015’ with conference chair, Emily Maitlis. What was simply delicious about the panel was that it had heart. Learners speaking passionately about their experiences in further education, their lives transformed through opportunity yet challenged on the ground with very different issues than those discussed by politicians at the event. The panel reflected that they do not feel represented by those in power and that they see their teachers, college managers and indeed, mums as role models in their lives – cue the audience applause. There were few sessions this year that arose such a positive response from the audience, demonstrating the value of student lead sessions.

So if students have that kind of impact at an event like this why don’t we see more of them? Sure, you could say that further education college leaders are around students all of the time, but do they always take in as much of their insight as they could? Do those that take the time to join student council boards, governor meetings and college committees reflect the entire student cohort? Or are those that are facing the hardest challenges the hardest to reach? I am constantly amazed at how many students are turning to channels like Twitter to deliver the student voice. In so many engagements with colleges it can be shocking to leaders to be told the brand-impacting comments that are made outside of campus earshot. In some cases whole communities can be made aware of college issues before it makes it to the Principal.

For some time we have been exploring the use of social media sentiment analysis and digital marketing tools within further education, taking lessons from other industries that apply to the same demographics. Some retailers are flawless at listening to the heart of sentiment from their customers and turning tweets into fuel to drive change across operations. Applying that to colleges, what if learners could co-create their own learning pathways, defining the content and delivery to their unique style? What if learners were able to become advocates for the college brand in the communities they are immersed, improving recruitment and retention? Let’s do more to put the learner voice at the heart of college decisions.

Back to the AoC Annual Conference. There were 60 breakout sessions at the event over four time slots across the three days. I didn’t make it to them all but it is my understanding that none are run by or even include students. For a sector that is focused on transforming lives through raising aspirations, developing skills and shaping our future workforce, are they accurately represented to advise us on how best to do it?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the AoC Annual Conference. IBM and Portal where an exhibitor, a seminar presenter and Gala Dinner sponsor this year as we thoroughly support the value the event gives to all. Personally, I get so much from connecting with colleagues and friends across the sector, understanding the latest changes that will require more adaptability from our dedicated college teams and exploring new ideas on how best we can become truly student centric. As part of our presence next year, we would love to include more direct student involvement and place learners at the heart of the event.

The student panel this year did a tremendous job of representing the student voice. With their passion and thought leadership I am in awe of the relentless work that further education does across the country to develop talent. In my view, it is truly students that are at the heart of education and the FE colleges that put them there.

Cailean Hargrave, UK Education Lead at Portal, an IBM Business Partner assisting colleges to create exceptional student experiences

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