Diversity and climate change were the big topics of the event in Birmingham, writes Philippa Alway
After two years of Zoom meetings, being able to come together in person for Association of College’s annual conference was pretty special. In the time apart, colleges have shown the vital role they play in their communities and truly stepped up during the pandemic.
From the last two days, it is clear the importance of colleges has been recognised.
Politically, colleges and the further education sector are in a really strong place. The enthusiasm for colleges and the role they will continue to play as we rebuild as a country shone through every keynote speech and breakout session.
Politically, colleges are in a really strong place
Having the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, address conference and make some positive announcements before and during his speech was a clear sign that he and his ministers are listening and reacting positively to us. His speech went down well, and I believe in his intention to work and collaborate with us on the big issues.
The announcement to delay the defunding of BTECs and other technical qualifications and to remove the English and maths GCSE exit requirement for T Levels is a sign the education secretary is taking an evidence-led view.
Disadvantaged students stood to lose the most from a rushed qualification reform timeline, so this delay and these changes are welcome.
Equally, his commitment to widening the eligibility for free level 3 courses to those earning less than the national living wage will help adults who will benefit most from the government’s skills for jobs plans to access the opportunities.
There is always more campaigning to do. As the skills bill progresses through parliament we will continue to make the case for amendments that increase access to education and skills for the most marginalised communities.
This must include empowering colleges to play an ever-stronger role in skills planning as strategic partners with their local employers and stakeholders.
That’s why it was so welcome to hear the shadow secretary of state, Kate Green, in her speech on the first day, commit to retaining the amendments made in the House of Lords, along with Labour’s support for further strengthening these and other areas.
Our president, Sally Dicketts, spoke passionately about systems leadership and much of her speech chimed with the themes in the Independent Commission on the College of the Future’s final report.
The conference showed this in action as well as words, with breakout sessions focused on equality, diversity and inclusion, mental health, climate change and sustainability.
There was also a conference address from Jonathan Dewsbury, the Department for Education’s lead on sustainability and climate change. It was great to join him in a breakout session to present the AoC’s Green College commitment. The commitment to action is clear – both from DfE and from the sector.
We heard just a taste of how colleges are leading the change needed from Yvonne Kelly at Barking & Dagenham College, and William Baldwin at Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College.
The discussion with delegates focused on the tangible next steps they can take, and the Climate Action Roadmap for FE Colleges, which FE climate commissioner, Steve Frampton, called the go-to resource.
Another key – and related – theme from conference was equality, diversity and inclusion. The AoC governance team published a bold and honest report on the first day, highlighting the lack of diversity of many college boards.
There is a clear need to do better at representing people from minority backgrounds at the highest levels of further education, and I hope this report and the call to action from conference speaker and footballer Eniola Aluko means that the college board delegates at the next conference will become more and more diverse.
As we leave conference for another year, I’m glad I made it out in one piece after Tuesday night’s celebrations.
I’m really grateful to work in a sector that is front and centre of the change that has to happen to create a fairer, happier and more sustainable future.
You can listen to The FE Week Conference Podcast Special episode here.