Buccaneering spirit in Bradford

May 3, 1996

Peter Chambers looks at how students from disadvantaged backgrounds made good. Kenneth Baker got it only half right when he described further education as Cinderella. Starved of resource and denied recognition certainly; but inhibited by self-doubt and lacking in initiative never.

The buccaneering spirit of further education depends on its enterprise and chutzpah, not on transformation by Fairy Godmothers. Bradford and Ilkley Community College (BICC) has been no exception. Hence the question of the advantages of operating at the interface of further and higher education, of being a "mixed economy" college, was not one we put to ourselves, although it has been put by a succession of godmothers, notably the Department of Education and Science (as it was then), the Council for National Academic Awards, the various funding councils and our close partner, the University of Bradford.

Our answer is straightforward: being a comprehensive college of further and higher education is good for our students, our staff and the community and companies we serve. It means that we can offer those constituencies a unique provision. It starts with a distinctive culture of quality assurance. It includes cohesive and consistent progression routes to all the recognised national qualifications that transcend the artificial distinctions between employer and employee, between academic and vocational awards and between the diversity of experiences that students bring to their programmes.

Flexible systems of course delivery accommodate the diversity of student and client need that varied experience requires. Perhaps most importantly there is the critical mass of courses, programmes, staff expertise, equipment and learning environments that would be missing if we were merely one of the biggest general further education colleges or one of the larger higher education institutions outside the university sector.

These assertions require knowledge of what BICC is actually like. Its foundation in 1982 as a "mixed economy" college was the last of a series of mergers bringing together the Bradford Tech, the School of Art, the adult education colleges and three diversified teacher training colleges. It developed the 1966 concept of the polytechnic, the "People's University", that had shaped its principal constituent, the former Bradford college, under Eric Robinson, which is probably why we did not put the question of its nature so explicitly.

By 1995/96, BICC had some 38,000 enrolments, equivalent to 10,700 full-time equivalents, of which 35 per cent were higher education students. The scale can be illustrated by its allocated maximum aggregate student numbers of 2,890 to which can be added over 1,000 part-time students. Equally significantly, we have substantial numbers of students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, on adult basic education programmes and developing confidence to enter or re-enter further education. Twenty seven per cent are of minority ethnic origin.

We begin with quality. BICC's long history as a successful Council for National Academic Awards institution gave it instant trust and credibility on transferring to the University of Bradford and reflected a culture of self-reliant peer group quality assurance. We struggled to persuade CNAA that institutional reviews concerned our total college (adult and further as well as higher education), but we succeeded. We persuaded them that our quality consciousness required us to address each and every aspect of the "ladder of opportunity" we offered students.

Thus, the higher education tradition informed our approaches to all our courses irrespective of the priorities of the different awarding bodies. Our academic standard unit brings equal rigour to accrediting adult education provision as it does to postgraduate programmes.

By taking our staff with us on this consistent institutional pursuit of quality, the benefits to our constituencies are tangible. It was instanced when the Further Education Funding Council inspected us. It was not easy to adapt to the rather mechanistic compliance template of the FEFC, but the evidence of staff ownership of the values of external discipline, of peer group validation and of institutional quality standards shines through the college report. The best example of mutual benefit remains the "excellent" rating awarded to applied social work by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

One strength was the study skills support for social work students, many of whom are "non-standard entrants", developed in collaboration with our further education resource-based learning workshop. That department also has outstanding results at GCSE and A level in English, with basic skills in employment and ESOL students.

Our progression routes provide constant success stories. Three can illustrate the process. Mark Owen came to us from a special school for the visually impaired to follow BTEC first diploma. He needed considerable learning support. He left us to work as a computer company manager. He was Business Studies Student of the Year with an upper second in business administration. Joan Williams, an Afro-Caribbean student, began her part-time studies with RSA secretarial courses and proceeded to an honours degree in organisation studies. Bruce Bannister used his HNC studies to develop his now nationally renowned business, Sportshoes Unlimited.

There are countless more. They indicate something of the flexible system of course delivery available. Well-developed modularisation and credit accumulation and transfer schemes mean that modes of attendance, combinations of awards or mixing elements of HE and FE become less important than negotiating a programme of study with a student.

Thus, the "primary learning goal" required by the further education sector, recorded on the individual student record, has influenced our HE practices. This flexibility facilitates response to the needs of local community groups, particularly Bradford's multi-ethnic community.

Asian women, for example, have special needs that we have met through home tuition, women's study areas and consistency of learning environments and progression. None would be possible without the scale of BICC's activities. A small college could hardly sustain mechanisms such as the academic service unit. The range and variety of provision necessary for responsive progression would not be available. The expertise and quality of staffing would be restricted.

There are, nevertheless, disadvantages. Our firm location in the further education sector is financially disadvantageous. Access to HEFCE funding is tightly restricted. There are no level playing fields at the further/higher education interface. We are between tectonic plates. Management is complex. Administrative complications abound. There are clear problems of location, status and tradition. Academic drift is a temptation.

There are, however, challenges our mission requires us to overcome. Cinderella is just the wrong model. Kenneth Baker would have done better to choose Aladdin. Aladdin's success owed as much to capability, initiative and cheek as to magical transformation. That's how further education and BICC succeeded. But without equal access to the Robber's Resource Cave those challenges will remain enormous.

Peter Chambers is director of academic programmes at Bradford and Ilkley Community College.

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