Lifelong learning, social justice and chocolate

Human trafficking, drug addiction and domestic violence – these were just some of the experiences that the learners leading the workshops at Fircroft College had survived, writes Teresa Carroll, Head of Wellbeing and Inclusion at The Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

One Thursday, more than 35 learners and staff from the further education sector came together on a balmy evening in Birmingham – for many, after a long day of work and study, to attend one of the Society for Education and Training’s (SET’s) local network group meetings. The workshops were all part of the meeting’s focus on social justice.

The learners mentioned had established new lives and were either on their way to university, establishing businesses, or volunteering to support others. One thing that struck me in the discussions between the learners, participants of the workshops and the staff at Fircroft College, was that everyone had a story to tell about how the further education system had been instrumental in their lives in removing barriers so they could become the people they intended to be and fulfil their potential.

The other commonality was that everybody was interested in people and wanted to extend a helping hand to others. There is nothing new in this theme. George Cadbury’s vision in establishing Fircroft College in 1909 was to provide educational opportunities to the local community. He was influenced by the Danish High School system, which was underpinned by the ethos of living and working together and supporting others in the community.

Mel Lenehan set the scene for the evening by talking about Cadbury’s vision and the Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 Report into adult education which argued “that a population educated throughout life was vital for the future of the country”. And asserted the principle: “Adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”; it “should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community.”

So now let’s imagine a world without the further education system. Imagine all that stifled talent and the loss to society as a whole and the subsequent demands on other parts of public sector services. Not everyone has had to face the battles of the learners leading the workshops, but most of us have experienced a sense of life not heading in the direction we had first hoped and had to navigate through.

This is where the FE system offers a beacon of hope and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people every year. Personally, I have Henley College (now known as City College Coventry) to thank for having the foresight to offer A Level classes in the local primary schools free of charge. So many of us dropped off our kids and carried on learning which took us on to happy and successful lives contributing to our communities and the economy. Now’s there’s a longitudinal study just waiting to happen!

Both nationally and globally, we are in a time of huge change. The industrial strategy set out the four grand challenges focusing on trends which will transform our societies: artificial Intelligence and data; ageing society; clean growth; and future of mobility.

The FE system with its focus on lifelong learning and skills development is a vital component in ensuring that society responds to those challenges by harnessing the talents of everyone within society. As I write this the Education Committee has reported that a 10-year funding plan is required to ensure that both schools and colleges can plan effectively for the demands of the future.

This is good news and hopefully we will see recognition of the challenges faced by the FE system currently. But in the meantime, it is worth reminding ourselves that in spite of the challenges, the FE system continues to be a life changing sector with a workforce that goes well beyond its day job as demonstrated by the enthusiastic people who showed up for the evening network meeting at Fircroft College.

The role of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is to support you in this and if you haven’t done so already, do check out what we offer. And remember the Society for Education and Training is your professional membership body. For just over £5 a month – comparable to a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate each week – you can join a community of more than 20,000 FE professionals.

One hundred years on, the Ministry of Reconstruction’s report and George Cadbury’s vision are just as, if not more relevant today “a population educated throughout life was (and is) vital for the future of the country”. Let’s make sure we keep on recognising the part learners and staff in the FE system play in making this a reality.