New chapter: How college are helping to change people's lives

The upcoming Colleges Week will highlight the many benefits that college life offers.

With college alumni ranging from Baroness Boothroyd, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, to the author and academic Andrea Ashworth, the prevailing myth that colleges don't cater for the academically gifted is not a little surprising. But that's the thing with UK colleges – the sector appears to be burdened by outdated stereotypes.

Little wonder then that next week, Colleges Week will focus on showcasing life in modern colleges to local communities, with institutions around the country taking pivotal messages into their local areas – not least the fact that colleges create opportunities for employers and employees to combat the recession and build Britain's future, and that colleges nurture talent in people and help them to progress. Other critical messages include the fact that colleges are at the heart of communities and are supported by a world-class workforce. It is high time, says Pat Bacon, the president of the Association of Colleges (AoC), that people realised their image of their local college may not have caught up with the reality.

Colleges teach all age groups

Although John Walker, 27, had a well-paid investment banking job, he regretted never having achieving his academic potential. "I had some family difficulties and left school with no A-levels," he says. "Everyone I work with is a graduate and it was always a shock to them when they asked which university I went to, and I said I didn't go."

It wasn't only embarrassment that led Walker to take an Access to Social Sciences course at Tower Hamlets College. "I knew my lack of education would affect my long-term career," he says.

Now attending college two evenings a week, he hasn't looked back. "The tutors are fantastic at adding colour to the subject, and one even suggested I apply to Cambridge. You only dream of something like that, but I have been offered a place."

Colleges have long catered for people wishing to climb the career ladder, as well as those wanting to change their career altogether and those wanting to embark on a career for the first time. And yet some people still believe colleges only teach teenagers and adult leisure courses. Most recently, colleges have started becoming national skills academies, outstanding in areas such as finance or teacher training. "We get people ranging from 20 years old to people in their sixties and seventies," says Mike Franco, head of teacher training at St Helens College.

Also increasingly typical is Leeds City College's business start-up centre, enabling local people to start their own companies. "We get people of all ages and backgrounds – ranging from those with no qualifications but a lot of life experience to specialists such as accountants – all of whom want to use their experience in an entrepreneurial way," says manager Jennie Williams. "We offer what we call masterclasses – bite-size, practical, hands-on training sessions on areas such as intellectual property and marketing – right through to providing mentors. Perhaps most critically of all, we offer a place to run the business from. After all, our aim is to ensure each business we work with succeeds in the vital first year."

Colleges provide business training

Most colleges are open all year round, and, more often than not, they tailor-make training for businesses in almost any area of expertise. That might mean running an intensive course over two days – or even nights. It might mean creating a brand new course for prospective employees. Or it might mean on-site tuition in a dedicated training centre. For example, Derby College has had an established learning centre within the local Rolls-Royce site for almost a decade. "The centre provides training not only for Rolls-Royce employees – past and present – but for their families too," says April Hayhurst, Derby College's director of business development.

Despite such flexibility, there remains a myth that colleges shut all summer, only offer day-release courses that are slow to complete, and specialise in a small number of training areas. Bacon believes it's partly due to the odd unhelpful comment made by employer associations. "The reality is, we have a wealth of experience within the college and a great track record of working with employers. And don't forget colleges are employers themselves. If I'm running a £35m organisation, of course I understand a thing or two about what affects the bottom line."

But the stereotypes are not universal. "Local businesses see us as a strategic ally in their success, and therefore turn to us to provide business solutions," says Robin Ghurbhurun, vice-principal and head of innovation of City College Norwich. "In fact, we're often the ones to work out where and why any training is needed, as a result of conducting a needs analysis in partnership with them. In some cases, this will lead to apprenticeships, in others it will lead to bespoke continuing professional development."

The newest area colleges are getting involved in is funding. "We've just introduced a highly specialised forestry machine operators course in direct response to a request from an industry association," says Russell Marchant, principal of Barony College in south-west Scotland. "Not only are we running the course on their behalf, but we developed it with them, and sourced equipment and substantial funding on their behalf to allow it to happen."

Colleges have a global outlook

Bob Tragheim, vice-principal of business development at Greenwich Community College, says its growing intake of international students enriches the cultural experience at the college. "Our increasing number of Chinese students means we like to celebrate Chinese new year in a big way and, for many of our local students, that's a completely new experience – they'd never understood what it was about before."

College may once have had a local focus, but today Greenwich's experience has become the norm. UK college students are also getting increasing opportunities to go overseas. While some visits have a cultural focus, others are educational, charitable or exchange-based trips. Hospitality and tourism students could find themselves visiting Ghana to get first-hand experience of their growing tourism industry, while drama students might visit New York to perform a play, and any student who wants to can apply to attend an environmental conference in Corfu.

Staff are getting involved in international activities too, with many colleges sending tutors to countries such as Russia and Vietnam to show emerging teaching institutions how best to teach certain subjects. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for instance, major reforms are being made to improve education, and links with UK colleges are proving invaluable.

The outcome of such partnerships doesn't just benefit the other country, according to North Lindsey College. "We have two outstanding partnerships with colleges in the USA, and with both colleges we have exchange programmes for academic staff, learners and managers," says a spokesperson. "The aim is to share and co-develop 'best practice' between institutions, and for us it has four major advantages. It provides unprecedented professional development opportunities for staff; it provides excellent experiential education for students; it develops additional income streams; and it promotes British further education."

The international focus of colleges looks set to stay, with the Government planning to increase the number of non-EU students by 30,000 in further education from 2006 to 2011, and to double the number of countries that attract more than 10,000 students to the UK.

Colleges look after their students

The myth that colleges expect students, even as young as 16, to get on with their learning independently still deters some. "I've found this is the greatest stereotype of all," says Bacon. "Today's colleges do things such as using mentors to work with students to help raise aspirations and offering valuable advice to students struggling with personal issues. Maybe 20 years ago, colleges were more of a sink-or-swim environment, but one of the greatest developments in further education has been around ensuring people get the encouragement and assistance they need to excel."

Some sixth-form colleges run more parent evenings than schools. At St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College, in south-west London, which is hot on parent involvement, there are specific events such as higher education parents evenings, where parents are invited to hear about applying to university. It's helped people from more deprived backgrounds get the message that university is for them too.

At Alton College in Hampshire, Ofsted inspectors recently noted the excellent support given to the students, such as working with them to apply for university, particularly at Oxford or Cambridge. "They were also impressed by our individual electronic learning plans, which involve us setting an aspirational target against their GCSE results and supporting them to reach that target," says student services manager, Jon Myers.

The open-door policy in every UK college is something Franco believes particularly attracts students. "Whenever they need help, people can go to their tutor, rather than waiting for their next tutorial. That gives people who are anxious about being out of education a long time huge peace of mind," he says.

Colleges cater to the best students

"Our requirements are seven GCSEs grade A-C," says Stella Flannery, principal at St Francis Xavier. "If you add to this the fact that the breadth of opportunities we offer enable students to customise their choices rather than work within the restrictive package of A-levels offered by many schools, you start to see why so many of our students go on to Russell Group universities."

Many tertiary colleges also attract students with an impressive academic history. "We've established a reputation for 16-19 work and, as such, often get students travelling some considerable distance, sometimes at quite a cost to them and their parents. It's not just that we offer a good range of courses, but because we have good employment and higher education rates," says Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester College.

Vocational courses also attract high-calibre learners. "On our BTEC national diploma in sport, we have had a significant increase in talented applicants in recent years, with many coming to us with GCSE points well above national averages," says Mick Noblett, head of sport at Preston College. "We take these students and nurture them to progress to an even higher level and as such, the course saw a class of 16 last year all achieve a triple distinction grade – that's the equivalent to three As at A-level."

Competition for places on the professional chef courses at Westminster Kingsway College has become so great that only those who have done well in their subject get accepted. "We test knowledge of [ingredients] and they are asked to write an essay on why they want to be a chef," says Gary Hunter, head of culinary arts at the college.

It's not that colleges automatically reject less able students. They have as much to do with recognising potential as past achievements. But by having someone in your class such as the future Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, now research professor in human genetics, aspirations are increased. "I attended Luton Sixth Form College... I got a superb education and the academic and scholarly teaching absolutely helped me get into Oxbridge and act as a launch pad for my career," he says.

Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds College, in Winchester, adds: "I resent the idea that colleges are a second choice – increasingly we are a first."

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