A Day in the Life: A Director of a Further Education and Training College
Cavan Institute is a large further education and training college in the North East, the third largest FET college in the country, which is quite remarkable given that we are situated in a rural county. Further education and training has really come of age in the last couple of years, thanks to the Further Education and Training Act 2013 and the establishment of SOLAS, the further education and training authority. This sector has for so long been a beacon for school leavers and mature students alike who wish to access or return to college, and we have seen at first hand the remarkable difference it has made to people’s lives, whether as a result of enabling access to higher education, preparing people for work or simply facilitating access and participation in college life.
With over 1,370 students enrolled this year, diversity among our student population is a given for us. We are proud to be an inclusive college, welcoming students of all ages and abilities. About ten years ago, Cavan Institute established a student service dedicated to supporting the needs of students with special educational needs, as well as those who might need extra tuition or help to get through aspects of their course or exams. The Open Learning Centre, as it is known, enables students to apply for and access funding from the Higher Education Authority, to which they might be entitled. It also arranges additional supports based on the needs of the students that make themselves known to the service, some of whom are not eligible for funding.
On a given college day, my journey to the office takes me through the busy college canteen which is where the diversity of the student body is self-evident. Here I’ll see students working on their laptops, others tucking into a sometimes not-so-healthy breakfast, and still more getting ready to attend classes with their personal education assistants. This latter group of staff is an extremely valuable asset to the college, and it is through the support of the HEA Student with Disabilities Fund that we are in a position to support students with physical disabilities or learning difficulties to participate in their chosen course.
As the morning progresses, I might find myself in a meeting scheduled with the four heads of school at the Institute who do a superb job of managing the day-to-day running of their individual schools. It is often through this forum that I learn of the immediate needs of students and how the staff at the Institute are working to help ensure that every student gets the individual attention and support that they need. This is a challenging undertaking, but through the class tutor model and with the support of the student services team, we manage to do this quite successfully. The tutors at Cavan Institute, over 70 in total, make a point of getting to know the students on a one-to-one basis early in the year so that we can monitor their progress and attendance, ensuring that they don’t just get lost in the sea of students or mountain of college work.
I try to have lunch with the deputy directors, who support me in the running of a large college such as ours. This is a chance for us to share the news of the day, learn about developments in particular issues or projects that we are each working on or discuss concerns around students that have been brought to our attention. At a further education and training college such as ours, thankfully, student misbehaviour is rarely an issue. What is more likely to be of concern is how a timetable might need to be adapted to suit a particular student’s needs, for example, ensuring that all classes are held in one particular building rather than spread across a number of campus buildings, if that student has a mobility problem or physical disability.
Although no two days are the same, it is very likely that I will be required to attend a meeting, seminar or conference off campus. I have been the chair of the further education subcommittee of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals for the last number of years, for example, and this has allowed me to engage with my fellow directors of further education and training colleges to champion the reform of the sector and to promote the valuable work that is achieved within the sector. A recent vision statement published by the NAPD demonstrates the vital role the FET colleges play in supporting access by disadvantaged students to further and higher education. It is vital that we spread the word to students, parents, career guidance counsellors and other agencies about the excellent learning opportunities, tailored supports and myriad progression opportunities that are available through the further education and training route.
I am proud to lead a college that makes such a difference in people’s lives and I am particularly proud of the difference we have made to the lives of students with disabilities. I see it first hand as I walk through the college, as I talk to the students and when I meet those same students at graduation. As I write this, I am very much focused on the graduation ceremony for the class of 2014, where I am looking forward to celebrating the success of all our students. But I will reserve an extra special congratulations for those students who have overcome challenges, such as the students supported through the Open Learning Centre. I commend them and all who supported them to achieve their academic goals.