A new faith in freedoms and flexibilities?

22nd November 2012

After more than 48 hours engrossed in endless discussion and debate about further education, skills and learning with colleges from around the country, I came away wondering what I had learned and whether things are changing. It is all too easy, after all, for it to feel like just another AoC annual conference – same venue, same faces, same discussions, same routines, same hotel – and not take the time to reflect.

So, a few hours away from Birmingham, one thing strikes me above all else. It is that after two years of the Coalition Government saying that they want colleges to be free of the yoke of top-down, centralist control, I truly think that colleges are starting to believe it.

After many years in the funding bodies, I know only too well that it is one thing to craft a beautiful policy and to make assertive statements promoting that policy; it is another to in fact influence the actions and behaviours of people actually delivering learning. This is not because people are perverse or wilful, more often than not it is simply that they lack the faith that the policy will last, that systems will support it (audit and Ofsted for instance) and that it is worth the risk.

I am optimistic now because there are strong signs that more college governors, principals and senior staff are taking a leap of faith and starting to use the freedoms and flexibilities which the Government has offered them. Our workshop at the AoC’s annual conference marked the first anniversary of the Sharp report into the role of colleges in their communities. We heard from eight leaders in the sector, as well Baroness Sharp herself, about what they are doing to be accountable to their communities, using leadership at all levels in their colleges and taking new approaches to developing curricula which engage people in learning.  All very exciting, innovative and creative and replicated across hundreds of colleges across the country.

What struck me as different was the language being used and the sense that colleges not only have permission to take new approaches to engaging their communities, but that they are now actively encouraged to do it and to be proud of it. More colleges are confidently turning themselves inside-out to be more transparent and accountable and to work with their communities to develop learning which motivates, excites, engages and ultimately helps people achieve their ambitions. My sense is that the Sharp report has been instrumental in this paradigm-shift, because it  articulated a vision for the role of colleges which is at the heart of why so many people wanted to work in this sector.

I hope that I am right, because we need more opportunities for adults to learn and benefit from their learning and colleges can do it so well when they have faith in the freedoms and use the flexibilities.