Creating a petition signed by tens of thousands of people and a debate attended by as many as 50 MPs is no mean feat, especially when you’re juggling A-levels.
But that is just what seven learners at Brockenhurst College did. They set up a petition in October after finding out how funding for their education had been cut by almost 30 per cent from 2009 to 2019.
As skills minister Anne Milton put it at the debate: “I think we can all agree that securing a debate in parliament is a pretty impressive piece of A-level project work.”
It’s especially extraordinary considering only 47 petitions have been debated in this session of parliament; on topics including Brexit, immigration policy and the treatment of animals.
We spoke to three of the organisers, Brockenhurst learners Charlotte Jones, Hannah Powis and Laura Whitcher, who went to parliament on Monday for a debate on their petition, which called for the funding to colleges to be increased to the same level as school funding.
Charlotte enjoyed seeing “such a big turnout of MPs to discuss our petition and it was great to see how many people are passionate about the same issues as us”.
What Hannah picked up on was “the amount of cross-party support we had”.
Laura said: “It was really great to see the process of how everything happens and how we can affect that and especially seeing the government working so well together.”
Asked why they wanted to start campaigning after hearing about the cuts to FE funding, Hannah said: “We thought it was really important for sustainability to make sure we are able to continue providing the services we get from the college for future generations.
“Things like mental health support, which the college is really good at; we want to ensure that’s stable for future students.”
Laura said: “We knew there were funding cuts in education across the board but especially in FE and colleges.
“But we were never aware how significant they were.
“We felt it was important to educate other people and make sure they were aware this was happening to us.
“There is a real sense of inequality in comparison to the funding under-16s get in comparison to 16-18 education. Considering you have to stay in school until you’re 18, I think it really doesn’t make sense why we would be funded any differently.”
Their hard work has taken them to parliament several times before with local MP Julian Lewis.
Following this week’s debate, Mr Lewis said: “The fact that a few dedicated students in a first-class college can turn their individual concerns into a full-scale parliamentary debate at Westminster speaks volumes for their character and for the encouragement given to them by the college staff and its principal.”
Asked what they wanted to happen next, Hannah said she wanted to see meetings with the Treasury about bringing FE funding up to scratch.
“We just want to carry on putting pressure on politicians,” Hannah added.
“It’s really important to keep up the pressure and make sure people are still listening.
“The issue is fundamental and needs to be addressed.”
Laura said: “Financial reports come out in March. I’d like to see they had taken what we said to heart.
“In the end, we’d like more funding.”
The learners were expecting much of what skills minister Anne Milton said in her speech responding to the debate, but said she seemed to agree with the points their petition raised.
Laura said she was impressed by Ms Milton: “She really stood out in how much she was listening to everyone’s information and how she was not brushing anything off, she really did care.”
Reflecting on the whole journey, Charlotte said: “I think the fact we were able to start this petition together and it’s become so big with just us and the help of the staff inspires me to know if any other issues need to be addressed, I am able to do that, so I would definitely do more campaigning in the future.”
Hannah added: “It shows us how important democracy is and how important it is to be directly involved and participate in what’s going on.
“Younger people can sometimes get disillusioned and feel disconnected from it, but this has shown our voices are important and people care what we have to say.”
On whether they would encourage other FE students to campaign on funding, Charlotte said: “Definitely. Actually, students within our own college have found issues they’re passionate about and made petitions and started campaigning.”
A learner in Laura’s law class has made a petition on the cost of travel for education purposes for young people.
Charlotte added: “It’s important for students to know they can affect change. They are not just an effect of what happens in parliament.”