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The importance of FE colleges to produce social capital

Much is written about social mobility and the notion that gaining qualifications will help you get a job, which in turn helps you progress further in life.

This is absolutely true and FE colleges are without doubt, very much catalysts for social mobility. Offering a wide range of flexible courses, at varying levels for people of all ages, abilities and interests, we offer many people a second chance at learning – as well as being a first choice for people wanting to take a more practical/vocational pathway.

But there is more to the value we offer. It’s not just about social mobility, it’s about social capital. This term refers to the factors involved in ‘effectively functioning social groups’ – including things like interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, shared values, trust and co-operation.

Creating meaningful personal and social networks is key to a successful and fulfilling life. These networks, which develop through friends, family and employment are arguably as important as qualifications and crucial to the process of social mobility.

FE colleges are instrumental in helping to create this social capital for their students and staff. Our links with employers, local authorities and other stakeholders enable us to promote our shared values – working in partnership to benefit individuals, businesses and the wider community.

And this isn’t just about major projects with huge budgets. Something as simple as a visit from an employer can give a young person the chance to not only find out more about a job role, but make a face to face connection with an industry expert. Working on a community project with a youth group, taking part in sports competitions, undertaking organised work experience and raising money for charity are all ways that social capital can be generated.

This is also about our staff. We work hard to give our teachers and support teams opportunities to develop their skills and interests outside of work – whether this is a charitable, sporting or learning activity. This enrichment increases the collective social capital of our college, which can be passed on and shared with students and the wider community.

With many colleges merging (or planning to merge), differing cultures have to come together – something we ourselves have recently experienced with our three-way merger in 2016. This is not an easy process, but can ultimately result in a much richer community, which can share best practice and work effectively towards new, shared goals. This again has helped us to create a community with a higher social value – with a greater focus on collective, rather than simply individual benefit.

Three years’ post-merger, our college strategy is now moving towards a social enterprise model, as we are ‘far more than just a college’. We have embedded ourselves within our communities and a by-product of this way of working is, inherently, the invaluable commodity of social capital.

Note: This article was originally published in FE News

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