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How Can Colleges Best Support London’s Economic Recovery by Peter-Mayhew Smith

London is at a junction.

Its phenomenal capacity to generate wealth, economic inclusion and social mobility has contracted and its great engine of progress has stalled. Booming sectors, such as retail, hospitality and the arts have all but shut down and the extraordinary pool of talent from which our capital draws has either ebbed or frozen.

This is not just because of the pandemic. It is also because many of the founding assumptions about equity and fairness have also been rocked through a series of crises that have shaken confidence in the fairness of the system that drives London. Opportunity is not as equal as we thought; outcomes for black people and people with disabilities are not the same as for other, more privileged groups and are not really getting better. Women pick their way through a landscape of threat. Mental ill-health stalks poverty. The cracks of inequality won’t be papered over so easily as before; we cannot look away from things as serious as this again.

It's a difficult moment for a city like London and the questions this last year has posed fan out across its institutions. Inevitably, they reach the front doors of the city’s Colleges.

Here, the challenges are very direct. The network of Colleges established over the last century was out here exactly to generate advantage, continually updating their social mission to secure inclusion and make progress a reality for more communities and families.

Clearly, Colleges have a defined and specific role to play in driving up skill levels among London’s workforce, both promoting advancement within sectors and helping people switch successfully from contracting areas of the economy to those now showing evidence of growth. Alongside, there are new businesses opening up and the offer of training and support needed to help enterprise thrive is also there as part of the Colleges’ promise. The funding is all there, through a range of initiatives and recurrent grants; the challenge lies in spending it, finding the students to attach it to and making it stick through a time of great complexity and change in adults’ engagement with learning. And the transition isn’t over yet. We don’t know how different the future will permanently be, but we have a good sense of the kinds of flexibility and digital dependence that work and study will involve in the future.

Colleges will, as ever, be active and effective in supporting London’s skills base and will help the economy recover through the guidance, learning and support at which they excel. Their local roots and close employer links will allow them to adjust their training offer to the needs around them and the employment challenges we face in the months ahead should help to create stronger bonds between Colleges and businesses.

The integration of skills provision into the different local economies across London will accelerate and drive exactly the kind of partnerships envisaged in the recent White paper and this kind of collaboration will generate opportunity and success. We need an evolving London skills system that promotes exactly this and the future mechanisms developed here must set itself a clear objective of holding together the triangle of training provision, students’ interests and business needs.

And that’s difficult enough, without Colleges also having to contribute to the fundamental changes needed to secure real progress in the many areas where opportunities are limited or double-edged. The idea that our state-funded skills system perpetuates inequality, helping the disadvantaged cope better with it, conflicts harshly with the values of all Colleges and signals the need for more attention to the content of the curriculum and its ability to tackle attitudes and behaviour. Colleges’ support functions, their safeguarding arrangements, the equal spread of their high expectations across different student groups, the progression and long-term earnings data of their alumni, the very climate set in London’s Colleges all need to be considered again. The ways Colleges can contribute to a deeper change in our city shouldn’t be overlooked.

Colleges will not want to train people back into the economic ruts and social habits that were commonplace before the onslaught of equalities emergencies the past year has brought, but to support widespread inclusion, a new ambition for all Londoners to feel treated fairly.

This blog is by Peter-Mayhew Smith: Group Principal and CEO of South Thames Colleges Group.

This is the third in a series of blogs by Collab Group London Principals in the run-up to the London Mayoral Elections 2021

To find out more about South Thames Colleges Group, check out their website here.

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