It is a common refrain among education professionals that the contribution of colleges to our economic and social welfare is often overlooked, but the first Colleges Week – from 10-16 November – will swing the spotlight in their direction.
During the week, staff and students in colleges nationwide will celebrate their achievements. The events will also provide opportunities to assess what colleges have in common with and how they differ from other parts of the further-education sector.
The weeks' events, led by the Association of Colleges and the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, will focus on five themes to demonstrate the effect colleges have on developing skills, delivering excellence, building strong communities, helping businesses to succeed and transforming lives.
Developing skills is, of course, at the heart of what colleges do, and the week will feature more than 50 of them battling to complete "skills challenges" while raising money for Children in Need, include building a house, making a car, designing an animal enclosure, and giving a hostel for the homeless a makeover.
Priestley College in Warrington – a sixth-form college rated as outstanding by Ofsted – is among those that can claim to deliver on the theme of excellence. It is in the second year of a pioneering project to help under-achieving boys by identifying students through GCSE grades and giving them individual tuition and extra help with A-level and BTEC projects. It raises aspirations, and the boys' marks are already improving.
A college's contribution to a community – as employer, educator, mediator, leisure centre and, sometimes, defender – is often what sets it apart from other further-education providers. The geographical boundaries of that role continue to stretch. IB and AS-level students from Taunton's College in Southampton, for example, helped build a school for a Tanzanian village as part of their studies this summer.
Providing specialist training to companies one of the ways in which colleges benefit business, the fourth theme. The Gloucestershire company Impcross, which makes engine parts for Formula One as well as passenger and military aircraft, is a typical beneficiary. After the workforce grew from five to 85 in 10 years, it turned to Stroud College for management training. Sam Ogden, the firm's production director, commends the college's flexibility, saying, "We could have had the training at night if we'd wanted it". He adds that "instead of just fire-fighting, the staff can put systems into place to make things happen".
Many are the stories of personal transformation that emerge from colleges. Shaun Connelly, for instance, is one of the students vying for the AoC Student of the Year Award. He was among Liverpool supporters caught up in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, and as a result suffers from loss of concentration and memory problems. He says that he has benefited greatly – in his job and personal life – from the West Cheshire College course specially adapted to improve his skills. It's the first training he has undertaken since his trauma. Inspiring stories such as his will abound during Colleges Week.
The writer is chief executive of the Association of Colleges