Telegraph Column: The power of further education

Heather Smith, principal of the Sheffield College
Heather Smith, principal of the Sheffield College

Imagine missing out on education due to chronic poor health but returning as an adult to finally secure great qualifications and a career to match, writes Heather Smith, the new principal of the Sheffield College.

That’s the story of one of our remarkable alumni who completed the science access to higher education course with us. He moved on to gain a first class degree at Sheffield Hallam University and is now a laboratory technical manager for a forensic engineering firm.

I firmly believe in the power of further education and its impact on individuals, communities and businesses. That’s why I am delighted to have been appointed as the Sheffield College principal, especially given my career started at the college as a lecturer.

Further education covers a broad remit. We attract 20,000 young people and adults a year completing academic, vocational and professional qualifications.

They come to us because they know how successfully we move our students into jobs and on to higher education. Our work with employers means we provide a range of courses including apprenticeships and business qualifications. The majority of our students originate from, and stay on in, Sheffield. Locally, the economic impact of the college is £321 million pounds a year. Of that, £284.3 million comes from the accumulated contribution of former students currently employed in the regional workforce.

Key challenges facing the sector include responding to the changing skills agenda and generating additional income in light of government cutbacks.

Our vision is to protect our core provision while building on our strengths, maximising new opportunities and ensuring the college is strongly positioned for the future.

An Institute of Public Policy Research report in 2014 stated that the traditional three A levels and a degree – the traditional ‘golden route’ in education – is no longer the only option to securing a job.

Other choices are available. The report concludes Britain needs stronger vocational education and more employers to engage with it and skills development. Further education has a critical role to play in this.

The college is launching more provision tailored to employers with new engineering and creative industries facilities opening this September. For those who do want to go to university, vocational qualifications can get them there.

Working with employers, schools and universities and explaining the full range of options is the best way to support the next generation during these challenging times.

That is my passion and why I am relishing the role of college principal.