How colleges are jazzing up their act

A Government funding bombshell has left managers reeling - and rising to the challenge
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The Independent Online

But for several tiers of management at many further education colleges this year, paradise has had to be postponed, due to the funding bombshell lobbed on to the further education landscape at the end of May.

The Government's announcement was almost universally interpreted as a scythe-like cut in funding for adult education and a demand that money be redirected into three newly prioritised areas.

The new, compulsory focus on basic skills, 16- to 19-year-old full-timers and adults without a Level 2 qualification (equivalent to good GCSEs, an NVQ or Btec) has taken an estimated £55m away from adult education.

With only a few weeks' notice, colleges have had to cull radically the planned programme of adult education courses and wrestle with the consequent staffing changes, with the threat of redundancy stalking many sites.

But many college managers see the change of direction as presenting opportunities. They are not bemoaning the negative impact of the May announcement, but rolling up their sleeves to try to ensure that doors can be flung open in September amid an atmosphere of readiness to meet new demands.

Typical of that approach is Josh Coleman, the assistant principal who runs the Dover campus of South Kent College. He saw the change coming, and agrees with much of its thrust, despite the fact that it has, for a few weeks at least, turned his working life and surroundings upside down.

Specifically, the changed priorities have forced a dramatic acceleration in a planned programme of improvements to facilities on the campus so that, come September, the college can be ready for what will be a radically different student population. In the space of little more than a month, Coleman is overseeing the complete refurbishment of all four main buildings on the town centre site.

Among the changes are a relocation of the reception area and library, and a new health and beauty teaching salon and sports therapy unit. Almost every classroom is being re-equipped, and, for the first time, the campus will have a student common room and office for the Connexions careers service. "It's transforming the education culture of the site," explains Coleman, "into a college firmly biased towards the 14 to 19 age group."

The physical changes will enable the college to re-shape the curriculum. A raft of new vocational courses will be introduced, aimed mainly at 16- to 19-year-olds who, so far, have had little academic success. Areas covered include construction, marine engineering, catering and early years education.

Initially, the content on most courses will be at a very basic level, up to and including Level 1, equivalent to GCSEs at grades below C.

But the aim will be to motivate a previously disengaged cohort of teenagers, so that they stay on next year and progress to Level 2 qualifications.

Dover has set itself the challenge of recruiting an additional 160 new 16- to 19-year-olds to these and other courses--a huge commitment according to Coleman.

Hands-on responsibility for achieving this target belongs to Simon Bowen, the head of marketing, who professes "excitement" at the task.

He's already mounted two events to try to get the message out that the college is changing. The first, in a marquee with jazz music as accompaniment, was for teachers, councillors and others involved in the management of education in the town.

Then, last Saturday, he targeted the teenagers, who were invited on to the campus for a free barbecue, with DJs and a surf simulator as part of the bait. The intention was, subtly, to introduce potential recruits to campus life with a soft-sell approach on the actual courses.

Bowen is very optimistic that he will attract young people who, for one reason or another, have thus far lost confidence in the education system. However, he does not think the appeal should end there. Vocational courses, he believes, can be just as appropriate for those who have already achieved academic success.

"I firmly believe that these types of vocational courses should not just be viewed as something for those who haven't done very well at GCSEs," he says.

But this is a nuance of policy for further down the line. The pressure for now, at Dover as at numerous other FE colleges, is to complete the physical and curriculum changes by the end of this month.