Why I loved (and worry about) FE College

Padgate College was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Like my high school, it no longer exists. Labour tried to shut it down when I (and my friends) were half-way through our first year because it was too expensive and performing poorly. Mostly it provided ‘day release’ A-Level courses for mature students but a few “young ‘uns” like me were allowed into its fold. Many courses, including the English A-Level I took in a year, were delivered in the evenings and because of this, plus its mature student intake, the pass rates were predictably low – about 19% – and the local council and/or college management (I never really worked out who) felt the cost of the place wasn’t worth it for such awful achievement. Thinking about how that looked on paper I can see how it seemed a sensible decision. But for me, Padgate was like heaven.

The A-Level centre was a converted residential hall in the corner of what was then a sprawling FE campus that included an art school, University of Manchester’s Sport Science and Media students, a Police Training school (Bruche) and “Stepping Stones”, a centre for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. Every morning the canteen was alive with stereotypes: bobbies in their hi-vis jackets supping hot coffee, students with Down Syndrome working behind the counter learning how to count out change, sporty students hopping about in shorts while media students wafted by with dramatic outfits and pitchy voices. The library was university standard – and it was there I first learned about academic journals – prompted by my amazing Film Study tutor Alan Ellison who part-pioneered our entirely theoretical Film A-Level based on his own experiences of teaching undergraduates.  Psychology class had among its rolecall a young offender on remand, a man in his 40s with Post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrific car accident and Vinnie, our real live Schizophrenic. I use that term ‘real live’ purposely, because at 16 that was how I saw him. Up until meeting Vinnie mental health disorders were something I read about with grim fascination in library book whereas, in this complex learning universe, I got to sit next to a real, live Schizophrenic who would kindly and calmly update us on his episodes and brief us of any ‘extra’ guests sitting with him in class that day. On reflection I feel that sounds cruel, almost mocking, but that was never the tone of his dealings with the class or of our dealings with him. Padgate was just a place where people – of any and all varieties – learned together, and I loved it.

Beyond the diversity, the second best thing about Padgate was the timetable. Many students were on day-release from work so they squashed the lessons together as tightly as possible. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I was there from 8.30am until nearing 5, and with my evening class on Wednesday I didn’t finish until 9. But this meant that Thursdays and Fridays were half days and Mondays were gloriously free. In order to save for university I got a job working at McDonalds. For the first six weeks I hated it because I was useless at it. GCSEs were easy for me, but putting burgers and fries into the correct bag? Apparently that was impossible. One day I got yelled at violently for putting through an order of “Big Mac no mayo”. I was so embarrassed I cried through my entire 40 minute break. Apparently Big Mac’s don’t have mayo on them, they have Mac Sauce, and this mattered more than anyone could have expected. After six weeks of torture I wrote out a resignation letter but when I knocked on the manager’s office he wasn’t in. Sighing I put it back in my bag. Nine months later I was a floor manager and I stayed for three years. Life gets you like that sometimes.

Sadly, as transformational a place as Padgate College was for me and my friends, they succeeded in closing it after we left and transferred everyone to the uber-Warrington Collegiate Institute and exorcised the A-Level provision. We fought and fought for Padgate to stay open: writing letters to MPs, going on local radio, I even read every darn page of the local council education meeting minutes and dug out the laws on Curriculum 2000 in order to make my case, and this was before the internet was useful so I spent a lot of time poking around library vaults. The letter we received from our MP saying the college agreed to stay open for one more year so that we could complete our studies was priceless. The MP attached a letter from the Principal that read: “I have commended them on the well argued case they presented to us”. It’s not true, no-one ever commended us, but we got to finish our studies in peace and didn’t have the negative effects of moving schools half-way through our studies. Years later, when I taught Citizenship, I would show students that chain of letters as proof positive that children can and must stand up to adults who are trying to destroy their world without due regard for what that will mean.

It’s now 12 years on and it’s entirely unsurprising that I am studying for a PhD focused on the ways people open and close schools.  Schools and colleges can make or break our world, so while I’m thrilled that FE Colleges are getting their moment in the limelight and I hope this allows for the building of places for 14-16 year olds that will be as positive as mine I also fear it will be done without thought for what that world means to the young people, without due regard to the difficulty of operating such provision and that, if it doesn’t provide the solutions the adults want – if it doesn’t have the right performance stats or cost-benefit – then the attitude will simply be one of ‘close it down’ leaving some of the most vulnerable learners in an even more vulnerable position. I’ve seen it happen once before, I don’t want to see it happen again.

2 thoughts on “Why I loved (and worry about) FE College

  1. Agreed. An FE college changed my life by providing a wonderful Access to HE English & History course that cost £10 and fitted around my family life. I went on from there to achieve a First Class Honours degree at 31.

    Now the Access courses (apart from a few very vocational ones) have been cut, so nobody else can have their life turned around like I did. And our local ones teach A Levels under the exact same constraints that schools have – they are measured by retention and achievement – so they can no longer risk taking in people with unusual backgrounds who may not last the course or who may not be interested in A and B grades.

    My local FE colleges seem to have lost that wonderful focus they used to have – that of giving all sorts of people all sorts of second or third chances. The staff have always been unorthodox and so have the students, but that’s being ironed out.

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