COLLEGES of Further Education (FE) offer the Church of England a unique opportunity to support and make disciples of a younger, more diverse Church, a new report from the Church’s Education Office proposes.
The report, Vocation, Transformation and Hope: A vision for the Church of England’s engagement with further education, was published on Thursday. It challenges dioceses and churches to harness this neglected opportunity by working more closely with FE and sixth-form colleges through chaplaincy, pastoral support, and community networks.
Since the pre-industrial craft guilds, Victorian Mechanics Institutes, and the technical colleges in the 1950s, FE colleges have been central to “skills development, social mobility, and national prosperity”, the report says. After the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, however, hundreds were closed or merged, and their budgets were slashed. Although funding had increased recently, including £400 million from the Government in 2019, more support was needed.
There are currently 244 FE colleges in the UK, which cater for 2.2 million students, with 11,000 staff and a collective budget of £6.9 million. Varying widely from small to highly specialist institutions, they typically offer a range of skill-based courses, vocational programmes, and qualifications in retail and business, digital media, advanced engineering, logistics, gaming design, and social-care training, among others subjects.
The report presents a vision of a new relationship with FE institutions. First, it challenges the Church to use its ability to “bring together a wide range of people to discuss, reflect on, and generate action in support of some common concern, for example in tackling poverty and disadvantage, or combating racism and hatred”. This “serving the common good” is the key to transforming the highly diverse communities that are FE colleges, it says.
Second, churches could be more involved in developing the vocational calling of both students and college lecturers, managers, support staff, and other professionals. Finally, the Church should use hope to dispel pessimism about the financial and cultural future of FE colleges.
One such reason for hope is that FE colleges work with many disadvantaged people. “Colleges are also places which offer a second — or sometimes a third, or fourth — chance to those whose education experience has been disrupted, has been previously largely one of failure or where circumstances have not given individuals a chance to build and display their talent and potential. They are in themselves places of hope, showing that in concrete terms in the successes of their students.”
More than half of all disadvantaged young people enter university via FE colleges; 18 per cent of students would meet the criteria for free school meals (compared with eight per cent in schools).
“Further Education colleges transform the lives of individuals and train many of our nation’s essential workers,” the Church’s lead bishop for education, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, said on Thursday. “They are crucial anchor institutions for communities, they cradle innovation and success, and offer new opportunities and second chances.”
One third of the UK’s 16- to 18-year-olds and about 1.4 million adults are currently enrolled in FE colleges. Most of the 155,000 students studying for A levels and 137,000 gaining access to higher education through FE colleges live an average 15 miles from their place of study, compared with an average of 53 miles for university students.
This locality presents an opportunity for churches to build long-term relationships with students, the report says, as well as be both a point of contact and a voice in the community on social, economic, and educational issues.
“Colleges can, especially, be a way to engage with what is often a ‘missing generation’ in church and who are those who often remain local after starting work. There is genuine potential here to help revitalise the local church in the long-term,” the report says.
The report presents three key reasons that the Church should recover its “lost vision” for these colleges: to grow discipleship among young Christians; to connect with the “missing generation” of young people in church through mission; and to support students at a “critical period of discernment, formation, and transition” into an adulthood. To do this, it says, requires a culture change within the Church, to prioritise FE institutions. This involves “deepening understanding; systematically engaging; and helping re-imagine the future of further education”.
The main barrier to this is that currently no Christian Church operates in an FE institution. Although, in 2019, the Archbishops’ Council committed itself to creating “a group of colleges from existing institutions that wished to be part of such a group because they shared its overall ethos, values, and approach to education”, the feasibility of this was still being assessed.
While Churches have had a history of indirect involvement in the foundation of many colleges and a network of FE chaplains still exists, this is described in the report as “sporadic and heavily dependent on local goodwill”. A few dioceses also provided a designated officer to support work in FE, but again, a broader approach is needed, the report says.
Specifically, it recommends that churches actively welcome, and offer pastoral support to, staff and students in their local college; provide creative chaplaincy; and foster relationships between the college and other community groups.
Within five years, dioceses should: create a network of local colleges and churches supported by a part-time voluntary or remunerated post; assign a member of the bishop’s staff to link FE colleges with the diocesan strategy; and consider whether house-for-duty posts could involve chaplaincy provision for colleges.
More broadly, and in the longer term, the Church should: create a FE colleges’ group; involve FE colleges in its future planning, including through investment; contribute to government policy for learning and skills, including the priorities listed in the recent FE White Paper; conduct a survey of FE chaplaincy; and include FE leaders in its education networks and programmes.
The report also encourages FE colleges and government and sector bodies to read the report and consider how they might contribute to the themes of its vision, through funding and by other means.
Bishop Dakin said on Thursday: “We want to offer a positive vision of how the Church of England can contribute to the flourishing of further education and address our lack of systematic engagement in such an important part of our educational and social landscape. . .
“I hope that through local diocesan engagement with FE colleges we can contribute to key issues in the sector such as mental health and well-being, develop lasting relationships between churches and colleges, and build a younger and more diverse Church.”
Vocation, Transformation and Hope follows on from previous education reports from the C of E: Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good, in 2016 (News, 15 July 2016), and Faith in Higher Education, in 2020 (News, 13 March 2020).