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Anchors Away – defining the role of our colleges 2023 and beyond - Lisa Capper

11 January 2024

By Lisa Capper, principal and chief executive of Stoke on Trent College

Following some years of turbulence in FE, there was a definite buzz of optimism at the AoC conference this November. The role of AoC is to raise the profile and prestige of colleges - and there has never been a better time to define the role of colleges as we head towards a general election.

The work of the Colleges of the Future Commission set out the role for FE colleges as anchor institutions and many of us have signed up to that vision. As the commission suggests, the term “anchor” for FE colleges goes far beyond the traditional static interpretation and is more dynamic, versatile and proactive than the metaphor implies.

Since joining Stoke on Trent College just under two years ago, I have come to strongly believe that colleges can create impact far greater than the institution they are and have a vital role in shaping place and prosperity. Our new strategy, entitled Skills Ready, Future Ready sets out, a vision and values that are focused on collaboration and partnerships to achieve more complex objectives about meeting skills needs, technical capability, driving social mobility, and making ground on challenging and stubborn indicators for the city.

Colleges should be an integral part of the system with schools and universities if we are to succeed in boosting productivity, higher level technical skills and social mobility. Further education has something unique and significant to contribute to the economic, social and civic growth of their localities.

Stoke-on-Trent is the 12th most deprived area of the country, following a triple whammy of the collapse of ceramics, coal and steel industries. It has the highest number of looked-after children and those with special education needs per 10,000 of the population. Other indicators such as health, income and attainment at KS4 and at aged 19 are of a similar status. All of this is of course compounded by the pandemic and its aftermath, and the increases in the cost of living.

I believe our colleges are a touch point for individuals and colleagues who look to us as a community of professionalism, expertise and inclusion. Stoke on Trent College is a medium sized college and serves a diverse learner base of adults, young people, those with a special education needs as well as apprentices, Neets and school links. Building social capital is part of our job and doesn’t just stop with learners. Colleagues at the college pride themselves on volunteering and creating projects to add value to our mission. Our Challenge programme this year will see learners and staff travel to South Africa to support community and education organisations with voluntary work and best practice. One of our Foundation Teachers was a finalist in the Civic Hero Awards for her work on creating additional opportunities for learners with disabilities at PortVale Football Club. Developing higher horizons and creating hope for the future is not easily measurable, but it can be felt through our ethos, culture and values which we carry into our partnerships.

Across the college, we are focused on careers, not courses, and progression to a good job, further - or higher education or to an employer career pathway is our version of success. It is only by being responsive to the skills needs of businesses and organisations can we facilitate sustained businesses success that will grow the local economy and attract inward investment for the city. We are not looking to do this alone: we work very closely with employers and industry and partner organisations such as universities, local authorities, the Chambers of Commerce as well as with other colleges and training organisations.

Our four skills hubs in key sector priority areas such as creative and digital and construction and green technologies aim to meet the needs of employers and work with them to co-create the curriculum and pathways for young people and those already in work. We are soon to be a license holder of the new Institute of Technology, helping us develop the higher-level skills in demand for new industries, new technologies and opportunities across the midlands. Meeting skills priorities will rely on collaboration if we are to bring about the transformation needed to open up career pathways for local people of all ages, and a pipeline of skills for employers to invest in.

Mindsets also have to change. Technical skills up to and including degree-level have value and our role as colleges is to promote the power of the technical skill. 20 of our students had the privilege of achieving a place on Capital & Centric's prestigious “Regeneration Brainery” programme linked to the Good’s Yard development of hotel, shopping and leisure facility – the first cranes in a decade in this city. For a working-week, they had the attention of skilled leaders, managers and technicians from high profile construction organisations and supply chains, and designed real-life projects. No longer thinking of just being sole traders as plumbers or chippys, they have glimpsed their own potential career journeys and life choices as QS or MD, and have felt the progression and pathways open to them as proud students of Stoke on Trent College. Lewis, a study programme learner has undertaken high-grade work-placements in Manchester, attended industry conferences and is now an advocate for the Company. Partnerships like this give young people the opportunities to find their skill and aspire to a successful future. “I now have hope that I can do it”.

Stoke on Trent is a proud city most famously known for the ceramics industry. The college is built on a pot-bank and has launched its new teaching partnership restaurant and Savoy sponsored patisserie kitchen overlooking the Hammersley Fountain, famous for its dragons. The venue has become popular for hosting partner events for civic and business communities and it epitomises the integration of the college with civic life.

The creative industries are thriving and the college is proud to be a partner to Stoke Creates, bringing together the cultural, civic, education and business partners, and with the Canal and River Trust in developing landscape art. As a city of two football clubs, PortVale and Stoke City we had to ensure we were providing education to both academy teams.

Colleges need to be defined with a proactive and dynamic stance and for their added-value to be counted, if we are to be successful in our ambitious aims for creating successful futures for learners and releasing prosperity back in to communities.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.