12 rounds with Tyson & the future black hole: what fewer colleges mean for mums (and dads)

Wednesday mornings are not good for me.

Wednesday is my morning of panic. I have 5 hours of teaching pretty much back to back, starting at 9.45, but most weeks I have to throw the kids through the classroom doors when they open at school an hour earlier and drive through the tail end of rush hour from school to college.

The neighbours are probably hovering over the phone most weeks Umming and Ahing over calling social services in response to the horrific screaming coming through the wall of my daughter’s bedroom. Each day we have what she calls “twelve fights of the Tyson” trying to get a brush through her hair but Wednesday is extra fraught. Spins, kicks, dodges, punches, every so often the yell of “Tyson wins, Tyson wins” and me calling out “ding ding ding” every so often for my own entertainment.


Then there are the things that always happen on Wednesdays rather than any other day. Ben has found some maths he forgot about, one of the cats has been sick in the hall, the car door has frozen solid, the phone is ringing… all of the stuff. I always make it but it is always  a struggle.

Once I actually get into the classroom things get a lot better; I’m lucky enough to get to spend time with an amazing group of access students and share in their discoveries and development as we progress through the course. One thing I have in common with a lot of them is having kids. But there are things that we don’t have in common. A lot of them have to get kids to school before catching a bus – I’m lucky enough to drive (after a fashion) and have my dad’s old car. Some of them have to get kids to school on one bus then to college on another. Some are bringing kids into the college nursery on the bus with them. Many are lone parents, so they are tackling the morning dash on their own every school/college/work day.

The stated intention of the FE area review is to create “fewer, more resilient colleges”. That means a lot for student mums (and dads).

Fewer colleges means a journey where you make it into college on time (or a little bit late) becomes a journey where you are struggling to get to any of your first lesson. That’s assuming your course is still running, albeit further away – if we are making colleges more resilient we are surely cutting costs, and if we are cutting costs, we are cutting provision. Adult education was slashed by 24% last year, followed by a near wipe out of ESOL provision (although apparently it is being “backward” that stops migrant women from being able to speak English).

One major development which could come from the area review and which no-one is really talking about is the abandonment of the project of the universal university. On the face of it, there are lots of arguments that university education is failing to create social mobility. It is very easy to ask questions about graduate unemployment and in particular graduates doing non-graduate jobs all. But the solution from the last and current government appears to be dismantling working class access to HE, and that is not going to create social mobility or inclusion for anyone. We’ve seen the fees being raised to 9K, the removal of hardship grants and nursing bursaries in the latest round of attacks, and the ongoing push from certain VCs to remove the cap on fees altogether.

But what we may see as the next step is the push for FE to shift focus to providing cut-price    technical qualifications to meet “local business need”. Sounds practical, doesn’t it? Businesses have a skills gap, colleges can fill that by doing the qualifications.

Except what if traditional higher education is about teaching critical thinking and the ability to challenge? What if without us even noticing working class students are going to be seamlessly diverted  from education for its own sake into education designed to make profit for wealthier local people without anyone noticing it is happening?

When I look at my kids and their future and what is happening with FE and HE I see a black hole. At the moment the situation is not perfect but working in FE you see all these sparks going on their separate paths – meandering and getting brighter and darker and brighter again, but making their own path. Ten years down the line when my kids will be at that age, if the FE review really does recreate the HE system, there will be a black hole. Got a child who you know is bright but struggles with concentrating? Or has fallen into a group who are spending most of year 11 down the Merry Hill centre? Or falling in and out of love? Or self harming and dealing with an eating disorder? Into the black hole of “business need”, without the time in class to find out about how to ask questions or challenge a system of government.

It is scary stuff.

In Birmingham and Solihull, the area review is under way, with reviews starting in Worcestershire & the Marches; and Stoke, Staffs & South Derbyshire at the moment. The Black Country begins in April with the rest of the Midlands being looked at later on in the year. Around the country parallel reviews are taking place, and the aim is the whole thing will be done in 18 months.

If you live in the Midlands, you can join our Love College campaign group here:

You can sign a petition calling on BIS to keep all current provision (so letting those parents still make it to college, and not shutting down the after school university option) here. Please sign and share, and please stand up for your local college. Communities need colleges, and colleges need communities.





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