1 March 2016

This blog contains extracts from Shakira’s keynote speech at the emfec Annual Conference on 8th February 2016.

It was a pleasure to speak at emfec’s Annual Conference last month about the themes ‘Embracing Devolution’, and ‘The Forgotten Voices of Policy’.

As I’ve said before, further education had to give me 10 years’ worth of chances to succeed and progress. We’re often talked about as the ‘second chance’ sector, but what about the third, fifth, or fifteenth chance?

I’m a strong believer in broadening our understanding of ‘success’ in our sector. Each of my previous experiences in education, at different colleges and taking different courses, might have been written off as a ‘failure’, especially by the stats people in Whitehall.

Widening our understanding of success is one of the opportunities I see for FE to embrace devolution. Working collaboratively with local government, enterprise partnerships, employers and social services, we can focus on real local impact and longer-term goals. I’ve been encouraged to see the Association of Colleges leading on this area already.

We need to go further than measuring qualifications and employment outcomes as our measures of success. I am a great believer in the power of ‘soft-outcomes’, or what Antony Seldon has called ‘human skills’.

Going beyond that, what I can tell you - even if it isn’t yet measured - is that in places where I come from, further education saves lives. It saved mine, and the lives of so many that I know.

The next century presents society with a challenge to better integrate public services. We should see further education as being at the centre of that. Education improves health, reduces crime, leads to jobs, holds families together and enriches our society.

Devolution and local power might enable us to join-up with these services to provide more complete support for local people, particularly those who run into difficulties and bad luck.  Devolution might enable us to really understand ‘what works’.

I strongly believe that we can achieve this when the voice of learners is fully part of decision making. By taking learner voice seriously, we are not just improving the quality of education in the short-term, but we are empowering students to be active citizens and develop those very ‘human skills’ that are so vital.

By taking learner voice seriously, we also create a community of equals, where all voices can be respected and where all members feel that their voice matters. Up and down the country students are telling us how important the idea of a college community is to their well-being, learning and development.

And that college community must be seen as a central hub of the wider local community. There too, the voice of learners can be better heard if colleges are nurturing and developing it through thriving students’ unions and student representation.

And so once again, I am going to set out a challenge for all principals and chairs of boards across FE to make sure that they make sure that they ensure that their learners’ voices are heard loud and clear through area reviews and beyond!

We’ve been asking learners what their expectations of FE are in four key areas: quality of learning, access, learner voice and outcomes.

Learners want to have their voice heard in their colleges.  This is not just through surveys and focus groups, but by being empowered to make an in-depth contribution to their college community through autonomous representation.  Learners expect that the more local decisions about their education are devolved, the greater the need for students’ unions that can feed into and influence local decision-making.

We want students – the forgotten voices of policy - to start the conversation with staff, community leaders and representatives about why FE is so important locally.  That’s what our #FEunplugged campaign is about, and we encourage you to get involved and get students involved by visiting www.nus.org.uk/FEunplugged.

ShakiraMartin_VPFE_400x400Shakira Martin is Vice President for Further Education at NUS and was previously President of Lewisham Southwark College Students' Union.