At this year's Conservative Party Conference, MP John Hayes described colleges as "the unheralded triumph". High time, then, that colleges start to blow their own trumpet and it is in this spirit that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Association of Colleges will launch the first ever Colleges Week on 10 November.
"It will attempt to inspire and unite the sector behind a celebration of the work colleges are doing to unlock the talent in local communities," says David Collins, AoC president. "This week offers a chance to bring the public's attention to the richness and diversity of colleges.
"Colleges are still seen as places where vocational, usually older, students develop skills. But they're about so much more – supporting management training for businesses, bringing life to communities and transforming lives."
"Oh my God, it's a woman!" is the usual response that Leonie Driver gets when she does career talks on stonemasonry. Much to her family's surprise, Driver decided to give up her career in archaeology – which she had studied at university – at the age of 24 to retrain in the ancient craft. "I love old buildings and I wanted a more practical career, with tangible results that people could appreciate for years to come," says Driver, who is currently working to help restore Warwick Castle.
Now 27, she studied stonemasonry at York College. Programme leader Paul Hill explains why it's such an important skill to develop. "There's a skills crisis in this area. We have nobody to repair our old buildings."
With National Lottery funding increasingly enabling the restoration of not just stately homes, castles and mansions but also small churches and other buildings, stonemasons are more vital than ever – not only in York but nationwide. "The new heritage qualification is also significant," adds Hill. "The Government is insisting that every stonemason has a recognised qualification by 2011, so we're getting people who've been doing it for 20 or 30 years but who don't have a formal qualification."
Others decide to take up stonemasonry for the first time, as late as in their 50s. "We get career-changers of all ages – I think people have a romantic view of stonemasonry," says Hill, who himself gave up bricklaying to follow his dream.
Driver has been one of his best students to date, winning several awards for her work. "What was great about the course was that you have the freedom to be creative, spending time on things such as column tops and lions' heads," says Driver. "I was also struck by how enthusiastic and helpful the teachers were. The range of experience and skills that people who came onto the course had was huge, but they managed it really well. That's why I'm more than happy to come back and do talks to help persuade other people what a great career this is – including, and perhaps especially, women."
There came a point in Chester Richards' life when he couldn't face another prison or rehab unit. "Although I had no qualifications or skills, I took the huge step of going to a job centre in Brixton," he says. It was there that he was told about a project run by the London-based college City Lit which trains homeless and ex-offender learners – as well as those who have used mental health, drugs and alcohol services – to become support workers for people facing the kinds of problems they once did.
"The idea is to allow people to turn a negative experience into a valuable asset," says Wendy McKaig, head of programme at City Lit's community outreach. This isn't about getting someone off benefits to stack shelves, she says. "It's giving them access to a well-paid career with long-term prospects."
Of the 46 people who have achieved the City and Guilds qualification so far (many of them also study skills-for-life courses such as literacy alongside the main, nine-month course), 35 per cent have moved into paid employment. The remainder are either actively seeking work, attending university or doing voluntary work.
McKaig admits the success rate is helped by the voluntary sector increasingly employing people with direct experience of the kinds of services they offer. "There is a recognition that having gone through all that gives you a level of insight and empathy that can be very effective. That isn't enough in itself, of course. You need professional competency too – but that's where our college course comes in," she says.
Richards, who is now a support worker for a hostel for entrenched drinkers in Camden, admits he got off to a bad start. "When I arrived, I found there was a lot of writing and I thought, 'This isn't for me,' but Wendy gave me the encouragement to see me through. I still can't believe it, really. I've never finished anything in my life."
When it came to the work placement – which all students are sent on as part of the course. Richards soon found himself giving up weekends to go back. "I realised I had something to give back." Today, Richards loves the challenge of his career. "And the options," he says. "I could move onto becoming a substance misuse worker or work in resettlement in the housing sector. There's so much I could do."
This year, Farnborough Sixth Form College had 3,000 applicants for 1,500 places. "Even in October, I was getting e-mails daily from youngsters who, having been unable to get in, were saying, 'Please, have you got any places left?'" laments principal John Guy. He admits that it's a mixed blessing. "It's a delight to have the reputation of being such a cool place to study, but we hate saying no."
Guy happily compares the college to the so-called top schools in the country – Magdalen College School in Oxford and City of London Girls School. "They boast that 99.6 per cent of their A-level entries got grades A or B, but they select students. We are non-selective and 250 of our students only got As and Bs."
What's more, the college serves youngsters whose academic histories are varied. "Our value-added results, as they're known, have meant we've been consistently in the top 10 per cent of educational institutions for the last four of five years," he says.
Indeed, if there's one phrase Guy hears time and time again from parents, it's "I don't know what you've done to my child, but he/she is different". The critical thing about Farnborough is that they work very hard in the first few weeks of the year ensuring students don't bring their school baggage with them, says Guy. "To that end, we don't have a single bell that rings in the college. We all have watches. And we're all known by our first names because the teachers work with the students. It's that sort of philosophy that respects the young person and enables them to grow.
Teachers undertake research on how to improve teaching and learning, further demonstrating the college's commitment to delivering excellence. "We publish an in-house journal of their findings –and some articles are published nationally," says Guy.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, but it's only with hindsight that Leo Scott can see the good that came out of his near-fatal motorbike accident. The crash happened one Sunday afternoon when he was a teenager. "My helmet came off on impact and I was in a coma for 14 days. I nearly didn't make it," says the 22-year-old, who has some permanent damage.
"But it forced me to assess my life, a life I'd become very disillusioned with. I'd dropped out of education and full-time work hadn't agreed with me either. But since the accident, I've thrived at college and it has literally turned my life around. My confidence has gone up, my personal achievements have rocketed and I've been able to focus on helping other students stay on track."
Scott is in the second year of a BTEC National Diploma (BND) in media at Filton College, Bristol, where Michelle Hughes, his personal tutor, describes him as a model student. "When Leo started, he was full of self-doubt, especially as he's studying the equivalent of three A-levels. But he quickly got top grades, which boosted his confidence. As he started believing in himself, he started on the road to an exceptional year, both in terms of practical and academic work." Just as impressive, she says, is his informal mentoring of other students. "People gravitated towards him, even people not in his tutorial groups."
Scott, who wants to work in broadcast media, believes it's because these students – many of whom are teenagers – know that he understands their confusion and doubts about life only too well. "I think they see me now really valuing the education I'm getting and are intrigued about how I got through the bad times to this. It's really rewarding helping them get through their confusion and do well on the course."
Helping businesses to succeed
When Currys decided to upskill their supply chain and internal workforce, they could have approached a private training organisation. "But when you do that, the trainers come in and provide X, Y and Z and then go," says Ben Spencer, supply chain training manager. "Just like that, it's done and dusted. I wanted more than that. I wanted to build a relationship with our trainers so that we could think about training in the long term."
He adds that Currys had complex training requirements – including level 2 qualifications in installing equipment for their home delivery team, customer service courses for front-line staff, and IT and management qualifications for the back office teams. That meant integrating college training into their whole business. "It wasn't even as if we knew exactly what we wanted when we started out," he adds. "With the home delivery team, for example, I knew that I wanted them to have an NVQ in domestic installing, but I needed to work with Lincoln College to configure a domestic installer training programme that meets the requirement of both the awarding body City & Guilds and our business."
Now that training is well underway, Spencer has no doubt that Currys' bottom line has been affected by their work with Lincoln and other FE colleges. "Customers have more confidence in our staff – who are of the same high standard – and our staff's morale and self-confidence has been boosted."
In fact, he says, no sooner had the first batch of 200 people been put through one of the courses that he had others regularly ringing to say, "When can I have my go?"
While some of the training happens at college, the FE sector has also helped Currys build its own learning centre, where colleges send staff to deliver training.
Spencer says colleges have exceeded his expectations. "They have moved mountains to get our training done well and quickly and I particularly value the constant communication I have with them. Colleges are an advice shop as much as a training provider," he says.
'I wouldn't even change his nappy or give him a bottle – now I've learnt to be a good mother'
Nobody wants to be pregnant at the age of 14 and Samantha Louise Jubb was no exception. In addition to all the usual anxieties of being a very young first-time mum, Jubb was still expected to be in full-time education. It was her doctor who suggested Ashlyns Unit, a pupil referral unit for pregnant schoolgirls and schoolgirl mothers that forms part of Newcastle Bridges School. But by her own admission, Jubb wasn't keen.
"I wouldn't go," she says. "Only after I had my baby boy, who's now 17 months old, did I even consider it. I'd been in denial about everything, but once my baby boy arrived I suddenly realised I'd done very little with my life and I didn't want the same for my son. I thought, 'If he watches me just laze about, he'll probably do just the same'."
But the transition into class was far from easy. "Samantha didn't participate, even when she was here," her tutor recalls. "You could tell things were really difficult for her." Jubb puts it down to some depression following the birth, things being stressful at home and her lack of self-belief. "At that time, I still wouldn't look after my baby," she said. "My mam and aunty did everything. I wouldn't even change his nappy or give him a bottle."
It was a childcare course run by Newcastle College every Friday for the girls at Ashylns that made the difference. "Samantha didn't sign up at first," says Maria Gibson, the course leader. "But she pulled me aside at the end and said, 'Do you think I could do it?' I don't think she thought she could, but she's been first to finish and she's thrived. Having achieved NVQ level 1, she went on to complete level 2 in three months. Normally people take at least a year."
Gibson believes the college's dedication to encouraging students had a strong part to play. "Samantha needed continual support – someone regularly telling her she could achieve, because she'd never had that from anyone else in her life. She ended up studying IT and a couple of other courses too."
Jubb has already had one spell of working in paid childcare, but has decided to educate herself to NVQ level 3 before returning to work. Her life has totally changed. "I'm moving into my own home, I'm looking forward to my career, I feel confident and best of all, I've learnt how to be a good mother," she says. "I'm not saying my boy isn't a handful, but I know how to deal with it. The course is the best thing that's ever happened to me."
It hasn't been an easy ride, she admits. "I can't really spell and needed a lot of help with writing on the course. I needed a lot of persuading that I could do it all the way through too. But I got both those things and I've learnt things like the importance of play – not just why it's good to play and how it brings children on educationally, but how different types of play enable them to thrive in different ways. I'd never have thought of stuff like that without the course."
Gibson agrees the change has been enormous. "At first, Samantha would come to class and never talk about anything to do with education. She'd just chat about what happened at the weekend. But once she was hooked in, there was no stopping her. Now she can achieve all sorts of things."
Every girl at Ashlyns has a tale to tell, says Gibson – most are ones of success. "We work with the school to change these girls' lives."