The 157 Group has spread its wings beyond England to take on colleges from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Lynne Sedgmore explains why.

I am very pleased that we have announced in recent months the arrival of Belfast Metropolitan College, Coleg Cambria and Aberdeen College as the newest members of the 157 Group.

These large, successful and prestigious colleges are our first members outside England, and you may ask why we have chosen to expand in this way at this time.

When 157 was first set up, it was to enable leading principals, and their colleges, to raise the profile and reputation of all colleges and influence policy.

We took the decision that membership should never expand beyond the 30 mark, to make sure we could continue to hold meaningful discussions with everyone around one table.

Anyone who has ever been to a 157 Group meeting would, I think, agree the discussions we have are meaningful, expansive, challenging, inspiring and, increasingly influential.

So much so, it seems, that I am regularly approached by colleges wanting to join us.

Over recent months and years, these approaches began coming not just from colleges in England.

Principals across the UK were interested in the work we have done, for example, on vocational teaching and learning, and saw the way we have included colleges beyond our own membership in many of our projects and initiatives, for the benefit of the whole college sector.

The 157 Group exists to serve its members and be at the leading edge of the sector.

We have always been, and remain, committed to doing this on three levels.

Firstly, through thought leadership — setting out visionary, challenging and radical agendas for how things might be done differently, and better, in the future.

Secondly, through practice improvement — enabling colleges to work together to derive experience and knowledge, and spread good practice for the benefit of all learners and employers;

Thirdly, through policy influence — using the experience of our members to directly inform the views of government and policy makers, government bodies and agencies, academics and other influencers of opinion.

It is true the devolved governments have taken somewhat different approaches to policy and FE in the recent past.

At 157, we believe FE is not homogeneous, and so we have always been open to learning from other ways of doing things.

Two years ago, we held a joint seminar with the international RC-2020 organisation of urban community colleges from eight different countries, and the thinking that emerged from our relationship with RC-2020 has influenced our own approach ever since.

So it seems timely we should learn far more intimately from the experiences of our colleagues in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

As these nations take a different approach, for example, to the formation of larger colleges through mergers, we want to understand the impact of different approaches to policy.

And in the crucial area of promoting outstanding vocational teaching and learning, we believe our new members will bring different perspectives that will enrich our thinking further.

The vast majority of our members, and consequently our main policy focus, remains in England.

We will assist our new members to use the English experience to influence developments elsewhere, but our key relationships with policymakers remain in Westminster.

We are, though, a sector and an organisation which is all about learning, and the best learning always comes from gaining diverse perspectives on similar issues.

We are very excited about welcoming our new members, and are sure we will see their influence on our work in the months ahead.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director,
157 Group