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Empowering through education: the evolution of NCFE and FE institutions

As we commemorate NCFE's remarkable 175-year legacy, it's an opportune moment to reflect on the profound impact of both NCFE and the broader further education (FE) sector.  

From its inception in the mid-1800s, to being known as the Northern Council for Further Education, to dropping this full name in the 1990s due to it no longer reflecting the company’s fast-growing national focus – NCFE’s journey to its present-day national prominence mirrors the evolution of FE institutions across the country.  

Similarly, my own institution, London South East Colleges (LSEC), has undergone a transformative journey, evolving from our origins as working men and technical institutes over 100 years ago, to becoming a leading force in vocational education across the London and South East regions. 

Navigating change: from policy to practice 

Throughout history, FE has navigated through waves of policy reforms, each shaping the educational landscape in significant ways. Take the Forster Education Act in 1870, which established a framework for elementary education in England and Wales. In 1944 came the Butler Act, which created a tripartite system of secondary education – grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns.  

Flash forward to the last three decades, where we've seen a plethora of policies, programmes and initiatives that have been launched, refined and abolished, during a period of time where we’ve had more than 60 Secretary of States responsible for skills policy and 15 major Acts of Parliament – it’s perhaps fair to say that change has been the only constant. 

We’ve also seen a plethora of curriculum reforms over the years, including the introduction of the national curriculum and GCSEs in 1988, ahead of the introduction of NVQs in the early 1990s. The more recent journey to current curriculum reforms with T Levels and Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) will be followed shortly by the curriculum reforms indicated in the SEND and AP Green Paper, which will start to address inequality and disadvantage amongst the most vulnerable. 

Yet, despite the ever-changing policy landscape, our collective commitment to nurturing talent and fostering social mobility has remained steadfast, and our understanding that one size will never fit all in education has grown. The agility and understanding displayed by organisations such as NCFE – as well as our local colleges – underscores our ability to adapt to evolving needs, while staying true to our core mission of empowerment. 

Colleges as catalysts for transformative change 

Back in 2010, Baroness Sharp’s report on The College of the Future noted that colleges should be the dynamic nucleus of their community; today, these words ring truer than ever before. For over a quarter of a century, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of FE in the lives of individuals from diverse backgrounds – from providing second chances to offering fresh opportunities, FE has empowered learners to overcome barriers and realize their full potential.  

But what my colleagues and I have come to realise is that colleges do so much more than just course and qualification delivery. This has been highlighted by others too; for example, the College of the Future report in 2020 set out that colleges do, and should, act as anchor institutions within their communities – meaning they must have broader civic responsibilities, as well as meeting labour market needs. 

At LSEC, we have embraced this ethos by operating as a social enterprise, seeking to enhance the lives of learners and residents across our region. We’ve looked at our procurement processes to better benefit local businesses, working more closely with employers to help meet their current and future skills needs, and identifying more high-quality employment and training opportunities for learners.  

We also began to look at ways we could mobilise our staff and students to support each other and their wider community.   

Good for Me Good for FE 

As a result, Good for Me Good for FE was born, an initiative exemplifying our commitment to social action and community engagement. As a result of the challenges of Covid 19, our college community showed a desire to help one another and within the first week, we had established FE Foodbank Friday – aiming to collect and donate food, money and other items to local foodbanks in the area. 

Since then, Good for Me Good for FE has grown into a unique social impact project, creating a sustainable programme of community action across the UK and encouraging staff and students within colleges to undertake a wide range of volunteering and fundraising activities. 

The initiative – which is partnered by NCFE as well as by the NSPCC, The FA and Mental Health Foundation – has so far generated an incredible £4.2 million in social value. This includes 172,000 volunteering hours, over 220,000 food items donated, and more than £250,000 fundraised.  

We could not have coordinated and led this national movement without the support and passion of NCFE who have helped us to build this infrastructure – for this, I offer a heartfelt thanks. In December 2023, we were even able to celebrate some of the amazing people who are dedicated to volunteering at our inaugural Good for Me Good for FE Awards event, which took place at the House of Lords and was a fantastic celebration of some of our fantastic volunteers. 

It’s clear to see that, whilst policies and practices go on changing, it is the people and their passion for learning and change that remain at the heart of the fantastic and transformative work that colleges do in their communities – this, in essence, is the recipe for making them the anchor institutions that they are. 

Sustaining momentum: a vision for the future 

For those of us working in the sector, FE's impact on social mobility is clear. In colleges, we regularly see people achieve their career ambitions after years of perceived failure or never before having the opportunity to reach these goals. Our understanding of how to help people realise their full potential – and our desire to do this – is something we very much share with NCFE. 

Looking ahead, it’s imperative that we build upon the successes of the past while embracing the challenges of the future. In an era marked by uncertainty and disruption, the role of FE in driving social mobility and economic prosperity has never been more vital. By fostering innovation, nurturing talent, and promoting inclusivity, we can ensure that education remains a cornerstone of societal progress. 

As we celebrate NCFE's 175th anniversary, let us reflect on the enduring legacy of excellence and collaboration that defines the FE sector. Together, we have embarked on a journey of empowerment and transformation, guided by a shared commitment to education as a force for good.  

Let us look to the future with optimism and resolve, by continuing to champion education and striving for a world where everyone can thrive. 

Visit the Good for ME Good for FE website to discover the latest news and to keep up to date with the impact that the initiative is having. 


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