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Why we need to consider colleges as sites of intersectionality - Palvinder Singh

14 March 2024

By Palvinder Singh, principal and chief executive of Kirklees College

What do I mean by intersectionality? The term might not be part of everyday conversation, but its relevance is rapidly growing. To truly comprehend the social environment, we must consider the lens of intersectionality; that social characteristics such as race, class, and gender create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. These factors position colleges as sites of intersectionality with a potential intersection of opportunity for policymakers. I firmly believe that to address interconnected structural social challenges, colleges play a pivotal role.

The GFE college sector undeniably recruits the largest proportion of students who are placed at the intersection of known indices of multiple deprivation. In the main, from the lowest 3 IMDs. These are students who often have complex backgrounds, low GCSE outcomes and require a skills education which is different from traditional schooling methodologies. In navigating both challenges and opportunities, colleges emerge as critical local anchor organisations.

Despite being the primary recruiters of students facing multiple disadvantage, the college sector has borne the brunt of the largest funding cuts within the education sector. Presently, funding continues to lag behind other sectors across the education spectrum. The real-terms impact, despite an 18% increase in 16-18 funding since September 2019, shows a depressing fall of 10%. The last funding rate increase nationally for the Adult Education Budget was well over 10 years ago. This financial challenge coincides with, and impacts on, the difficulty colleges face in attracting and retaining staff.

The sector's funding constraints create a paradox. While we are grappling with insufficient resources, we also play a pivotal role in supporting students from the intersection of disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances. This misalignment raises crucial questions about broader issues of educational equity and highlights the need for a more pragmatic funding approach. Examples such as the VAT disadvantage and the wage gap between college educators and their school counterparts highlight the systemic challenges and inequalities which need to be addressed.

The move to defund some Level 3 vocational courses also risks limiting the aspirations of students. By undermining the aspirations of current Level 2 students, we jeopardise the career pathways and societal outcomes we aim to positively influence. T levels are not appropriate for all Level 2 students, a cohort who deserve educational programmes which are relevant and aspirational.

The recent announcement to increase hours for GCSE English and maths, made without prior consultation - though admirable in its intention to provide more contact time – is not without its pitfalls. The approach of linking this to the levers of conditions of funding and removing the 5% tolerance is unwise and, in reality, a funding cut. The 0% tolerance demonstrates a serious misunderstanding about the scale of the issues at hand. Forcing colleges to increase GCSE hours at the probable expense of the main qualification and forcing students to repeat a treadmill which causes so much anxiety and anguish, could worsen challenges to mental health among students at the intersection of disadvantage. Continuing to pursue a policy that for often vulnerable students not attaining English or maths with no route to Level 3, is cruel in the impact it has on self-esteem and aspiration.

There is no denying the importance of English and maths but the question is whether the current GCSE content is right for the vast majority of college students who have experienced years of schooling and yet not achieved. We need to think in a different way to raise aspiration and create meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning values for a progressive UK. We can only achieve this by removing the stigma of failure and focus on the need for progress for everyone, importantly offering curriculum content which engages learning.

All of this is building to a perfect storm—IMDs, college funding, qualification reforms, and GCSE hours all wrapped up with challenges to public sector spending. However, as an optimist, I believe that the college sector holds the greatest potential to address challenges faced in the UK; we are the sector that can meet the skills needed to grow economic productivity and workforce. To make this happen, skills education policies must adopt an intersectional approach rather than presenting technical reforms with singular outputs. The current dysfunction in post-16 educational planning, both local and national, where actions are often taken in isolation, must be reimagined for a more cohesive and effective approach.

On a final note, my appeal is for a re-evaluation of the narrative surrounding the college sector. Rather than perceiving it solely as a lever to push singular outcomes, it has to be recognised as a part for economic growth that works tirelessly with students affected by intersecting disadvantage. It is this very intersection that presents an equitable opportunity for the sector to be a powerful force shaping the nation's skills future positively.

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