Sue Dutton: 'Colleges recognise they are a vital polymer of the social glue'

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The Independent Online

When the Commission for Integration and Cohesion produced its final report on local diversity in June 2007 it wanted to redefine just what made a community cohesive. This new interpretation includes a shared sense of collective contribution, positive relationships between people – be it in the workplace, college or high street – a strong trust in local institutions and similar opportunities for people from different ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.

Unsurprisingly the Commission places great store in education as a positive agent. Colleges recognise they are a vital polymer of the social glue. Ethnic minority students make up 16 per cent of learners in colleges compared with nine per cent of the general population. Whether it is Yeovil College teaching English during the lunch break at a local food processing plant, or Leicester College helping hundreds of staff at a bakery that employs people from 25 different nationalities learn basic skills – both projects cited as best practice by the Commission – they have a long and proud history of serving all sections of their community.

Equal opportunities are so often defined by economic opportunities. On the day Rover's Longbridge plant closed in 2005, principals from colleges in Birmingham and the Black Country convened an emergency meeting to discuss the assistance they could offer. With the support of the Learning and Skills Council they created a skills analysis and retraining centre serving 150 people every day. Actions like this maintain a community's strong trust in local institutions. Ninety per cent of learners approve of the quality of teaching in their college, one of the strongest public sector expressions of approval and trust.

There are many college programmes that fit under the umbrella of the Commission's definition, but the innovative include: Oldham College capitalising on the opening of a new Tesco store by running a Passport to Employment programme, supporting individuals into employment and bringing people together from the different Oldham communities through pre-employment training; Tresham Institute creating a course targeted at young mums, offering them the opportunity to run their own nail bar; Filton College's Discovery Days, enticing youngsters back into education with taster courses such as survival techniques, refereeing, reality television production and horse riding.

For local and regional activity to become part of a national coherent effort there would need to be changes. Colleges should shout louder about their successes. Government can reduce the intermediaries between funding for programmes that assist cohesion and the college.

Education Maintenance Allowances are helping thousands of young people stay on in education but a national careers and advice service would also be a boon, allowing young people to make informed choices based on impartial and expert advice.

The writer is the Acting Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges