The Association of Colleges’ Annual Conference is a chance for leading think tanks to launch their latest reports in front of a huge education audience.
The findings of the Independent Commission of Colleges in their Communities was led by Baroness Sharp of Guildford, the Chair of the Inquiry, when she was interviewed on centre stage during the first morning of the conference.

Her message couldn’t have been clearer; colleges need to engage with their learners and local communities if they are to prosper in the economic downturn, and continue to call for the simplification of what is currently an ‘unduly’ and ‘prescriptive’ funding regime.

The report, titled ‘A dynamic nucleus: Colleges at the heart of local communities’, was launched on the first day of the AoC Annual Conference, and says the Government needs to cut additional ‘red-tape’ if colleges are to respond to the needs of employers and their local area.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford said: “If government could give greater flexibility to the over-rigorous funding regime and relax other ‘red-tape’, then colleges could and would deliver more in terms of community leadership. But they cannot do this alone.

“It requires more co-investment by individuals and employers; better information for the public and greater local accountability. “We have received a great deal of support for this shared agenda of reform, with colleges, their support bodies, and local and central government stepping up to the plate.”

Change is always a challenge and for some people too hard to face”

Recommendations in the report include establishing a community curriculum within colleges that can respond to local needs, the creation of an ‘innovation’ code’ that would allow greater funding flexibility, and a review of the Qualifications and Credit framework.

The Commission, which has been supported by NIACE, the AoC and the 157 Group, is also calling for a new generation of entrepreneurial leaders who can work closely with employers in a new community curriculum.

The report adds that a dedicated leadership centre should be constructed, focusing solely on improving the leadership and management within further education colleges. Joy Mercer, AoC Director of Education Policy, said: “The recommendations will, if implemented, recognise the pivotal role that Colleges play at the centre of their communities.

“AoC believes that the funding freedoms advocated in the report will allow Colleges to really respond to need; the accountability outwards to employers, community groups and individuals and the focus on leaders and managers with the right skills to work towards the social and economic well-being of their communities are vital.”

By and large both John Hayes on the one hand and Vince Cable on the other are very much behind this vision of colleges actually being the players who can help to promote community cohesion”

The inquiry used a range of data to sources to draw up their findings, including two calls for evidence, a number of visits to further education colleges and regular discussions with staff and learners.

Baroness Sharp said the report had received very positive feedback so far, and she was confident the sector would take their recommendations on board. “They’re optimistic time frames, but if you don’t try, you don’t get. We’ve been surprised actually by the open door we seem to be pushing at in relation to the government,” Baroness Sharp said.

“By and large both John Hayes on the one hand and Vince Cable on the other are very much behind this vision of colleges actually being the players who can help to promote community cohesion.”
It’s unclear whether this report will have aany direct implications both on government policy and the strategy of colleges in the further education sector.

Community cohesion is a term frequently thrown around at the AoC Conference, but here it has been packaged into a report with context and practical, realistic recommendations.
John Hayes MP, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, seems to have taken notice anyway – so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the Commission’s findings become the ‘nucleus’ of current debate.

AoC president Fiona McMillan, during her opening address to the conference, used the platform to discuss community. She said: “There is much that is done which is truly impressive in terms of colleges’ engagement with their communities. But the expectations and the potential outcomes could be so much greater.

“On our part as colleges we need to be responsive and flexible and open to new opportunities. From the Business community we need a willingness to engage, to look for partnerships with colleges and the opportunity together to solve skills needs. I would say to any employer, ‘give us the opportunity to show what we can do, and we will surprise you by our responsiveness and our capabilities’.”

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