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General election 2024: colleges rally to engage their communities

05 July 2024

General election

From hustings and parliamentary candidate visits to voter drives and support with ID, colleges pulled out all the stops to engage their communities with the general election.

According to estimates from the Association of Colleges, there have been more than 50 hustings held in colleges, as well as many visits from MPs, and college-led voter registration drives.

As anchor institutions in their communities, colleges were ideally positioned to bring together candidates from all parties and became the go-to advice service for students of all ages who had questions about the general election. They became welcoming and supportive places for prospective parliamentary candidates who wanted to show their support for their constituency and tune into local issues and concerns.

Leaders across the country also participated in national conversations about policy priorities for the new government. More than 275 college staff attended AoC’s series of weekly webinars which explored policies like qualification reform, lifelong learning, the apprenticeship levy, local skills improvement plans and adult education.

With such a short timeline, colleges had to work quickly to organise hustings, and for many, it was the first time they had done so. But for Michelle Brabner, Principal and CEO of Southport Education Group, the resulting student engagement was more than worth it. The group had five candidates attend, the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and Reform, and all questions were supplied by students.

“The hustings event provided our students with a unique opportunity to engage directly with parliamentary candidates, enhancing their understanding of democratic engagement and critical thinking skills. Post the event, students were keen to start and participate in interesting discussions in their tutorial sessions about what the candidates had said,” she says.

“Hosting such an event for the first time was a fantastic experience for me, and I found the AoC's resource materials incredibly useful, from inviting candidates to conducting the event.”

At Stoke-on-Trent College, students chose five themes they wanted candidates to ask questions about: cost of living, education, health care, the city and crime and anti-social behaviour. The formal hustings also became a networking lunch so that students could meet the candidates directly and continue conversations.

“The hustings really opened up the conversation around the importance of voting and the opportunity for students to use their voice, and feedback was exceptionally positive,” says Claire Williams, Director of Marketing, PR and Communications.

For many colleges, having multiple campuses meant organising multiple hustings. At East Kent Colleges Group, for example, six were held, one at each college, with more than 50 invitations sent out to prospective party candidates.

“Our students have responded so well, with hundreds attending the hustings and asking considered questions about topics that matter to them,” says Graham Razey, Chief Executive Officer for East Kent Colleges Group.

“It’s often said that young people are disengaged with politics, but that’s definitely not the case in East Kent, and I’m incredibly pleased that our young people go into polling day with a huge amount of insight into what their local candidates stand for, and the broader parties positions are on topics they care about.”

As its younger cohort of students will be voting for the first time, the college group also set up a mock polling booth so that they fully understood what to expect on the day itself.

At Holy Cross College in Bury, one student had a political experience she’ll never forget. After a work placement set up by the college with Bury North Parliamentary candidate James Firth, Holly Kaines was chosen to give a speech at the launch of the Labour manifesto.

“At first, James had only told her it was a short speech to introduce a shadow frontbencher, so she really pushed herself out of her comfort zone,” says Peter Barrow, government and politics teacher at the college.

“Holly had never done anything like this. It has massively increased her confidence as she heads into higher education. She has spoken about future opportunities as a result of this, within politics and in public speaking more widely.”

As well as hustings and MP visits, Trafford and Stockport College Group focused a lot of its efforts on engaging students with the voting process, with almost 900 students registering to vote since the general election was announced. The group will also be one of the first in FE to introduce auto-enrolment from September.

“At the Trafford and Stockport College Group we believe passionately in the importance of political literacy and engaging our students in the democratic process,” says James Scott, Principal and CEO of the college group.

“In addition, every week we encourage students through our Mood Box Monday to give us a simple ‘yes’ ‘no’ ‘don’t know’ response to a topical political question – such as ‘should the voting age be lowered to 16?’ and ‘do you know who your local MP is?’.”

Student political literacy has been central to the group’s educational offer, and one former student has recently become the youngest ever councillor for the Moss Side ward and while a GCSE student stood in local elections this year in the Urmston ward.

“For us, that’s real impact when young people feel empowered to make a difference for their communities,” adds Scott.

A full A-Z of further education can be found here, and a cheat sheet of key policies and issues in FE can be found here.