Further education and community: The responsibilities of leaders
FE providers are embedded in their communities like no other institution. But what does this imply about the role of FE leaders and their responsibilities to the people they serve, ask Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith
In the UK and internationally, democracy and notions of community are being conceptualized in our public institutions through the lens of neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism is the dominant political driver of our time, bringing with it a focus on deregulation, economic competitiveness and globalization. This has resulted in the free market displacing social democratic policy as a driving force in many areas of public life.
For further education leaders, from classrooms to boardrooms, navigating through this often narrow and reductive landscape requires alternative visions to address injustices in the communities they serve.
Further education providers are embedded in communities in a way that no other educational institutions are. Unlike schools, they have reach across and into diverse communities beyond neighbourhood boundaries. They also engage to a greater extent with community provision and with employers and local industries. Critical in this positioning is the history of each provider – many colleges have grown out of particular needs and economies which connects them strongly to their context and situations.
Our Further Education in England: Transforming Lives and Communities research project, commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU), has identified a number of key findings in relation to the importance of FE in communities. These findings suggest that FE leaders have important ethical responsibilities regarding this provision.
Connecting to community need
The colleges we visited as part of the project, up and down the country, were had roots woven into the social/cultural and economic fabric and history of the landscapes they inhabited; landscapes that shaped the lives of the learners that came through their doors. For example, when talking to learners on Access to HE provision at an FE college in the North East, it became clear that while the college itself sat in a comparatively wealthy neighbourhood, it was drawing in students from outlying villages that, until the mid-1980s, had been economically dependent on coal.
The communities in these villages – to a degree geographically isolated – had a legacy of unemployment and the associated impact of this in terms of poverty, health and well-being. The intergenerational transmission of these still raw factors were a motif in the stories shared. In that sense, 30 years after pits had closed, the college was still addressing the impact of the closures, providing education and employment opportunities for young people and adults, offering them hope, real career choices and, as a corollary, a way out of cycles of mental ill-health. Nyomi’s video is powerful testimony of this.
Our interviews revealed that learners from areas with significant levels of socio-economic deprivation are nevertheless fuelled by hopes and ambitions for their lives and for their families. David and Jade in the North West offer further examples. In their case studies, a further education college had forged strong links with a local charitable trust; in the centre of the community it provided literacy education (and more) to adults, often with families, who want to enrich their lives, gain employment and be positive role models for their children.
Jade’s interview illuminates how motherhood was a powerful motivator for her to return to learning with the goal of gaining confidence, achieving qualifications and getting a career to offer her little boy ‘a better life’. Similarly, David’s video provides rich evidence of a learner coming back to learning in his 30s. For him, learning to read doesn’t just mean being able to read to his daughter (although that is a powerful motivator), it also means being able to engage with the world – whether that means reading and having a doctor’s note signed off or preparing for a driving theory test. Returning to education and learning to read and write was the catalyst for David voting for the first time. Ultimately, then, it can also be the difference between taking part in our democracy or not.
Beyond the bottom line
What do these examples imply for leadership? One remarkable aspect of the narratives, including the videos highlighted above, is that the social benefits of each of the stories are far greater than the achievement of a single (funded) qualification. This is illustrative of the idea that the further education that colleges provide is about more than ‘just’ the achievement of funded qualification aims.
Our research also underlines how ethically-grounded college leadership needs to be driven by the voices and needs of local communities. This kind of college leadership sees value (unmeasured by funding metrics at present) in engaging with community organisations and in community outreach. Furthermore, it fully appreciates and facilitates the powerful ripple effects of transformative learning, understanding how it deeply benefits not just individuals (like Nyomi, David and Jade) but their families and local communities too. It shows too that the business of leadership in FE is about far more than leading an institution – the best sector leaders see further and recognise the extent of their role in their community.
Ultimately, this kind of conscious, ethical leadership feeds into our country’s democratic culture. Despite the challenges of the ever-changing funding regime, it’s beyond the bottom line that the real work starts.
Vicky Duckworth is Reader in Education at Edge Hill University. She has considerable expertise in adult education and literacy and is deeply committed to challenging inequality through critical and emancipatory approaches to education, widening participation, inclusion, community action and engaging in research with a strong social justice agenda. Rob Smith was co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education and now works at Birmingham City University where his work focuses on participatory research and collaborative writing with FE practitioners and other teachers. Vicky and Rob lead the UCU’s Further Education in England: Transforming Lives and Communities project.