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Northampton College students grill MP

Daniel Owens describes an online encounter between journalism students and Chris Heaton Harris

College students were given the chance to quiz Northamptonshire MP Chris Heaton-Harris as part of a nationwide awareness campaign highlighting the role Further Education has to play in the economic rebuild.

Journalism students at Northampton College took part in a ‘virtual Q&A’, where they asked the Conservative MP for Daventry his views on a wide range of topics, including fair funding for colleges, the threat of a no-deal Brexit and the ongoing row over free school meals.

The 45-minute session, held over Zoom, was staged to mark Love Our Colleges week and saw the students given a platform to quiz the politician on any subject they wanted, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was predictably high on the agenda.

Addressing concerns over mental health issues stemming from ongoing coronavirus restrictions, Mr Heaton Harris said £733,000 of extra funding was being made available to Northamptonshire County Council to ensure adequate resources are in place to deal with a rise in those struggling to cope.

“Going forward, mental health is likely to be one of the biggest things this country faces. None of us have gone through anything like this in our lifetime and we weren’t prepared mentally or economically. I totally understand the pressures on students at this time. I found the first three weeks of lockdown really quite troubling.”

An extra £400million was earmarked for the FE sector last year, but despite the windfall colleges have been left as the poor relation in the education system, lagging behind schools and universities.

Colleges currently receive £4,188 funding for each 16 to 18-year-old student, while schools receive more than £5,000 for someone of the same age.

With uncertainty  due to COVID-19 still surrounding exam arrangements for next summer, Mr Heaton Harris added that he expected there to be “a huge amount of flexibility” in the education system for the next two or three years to allow schools, colleges and universities more scope to adapt to the situation as it unfolds.

Latest research released as part of Love Our Colleges week shows the majority 68 per cent of SMEs say that if their business is going to “survive and thrive” then skills must be a top priority for the government, while 71 per cent believe colleges are important to business for training and retraining staff.

Pat Brennan-Barrett, principal of Northampton College, said colleges are at the centre of their community and will play a vital role in the economic rebuild following the twin challenge of the ongoing global pandemic and the end of the EU transition period.

She said: “Colleges are central to rebuilding the economy post-Brexit and through COVID-19, strengthening communities, and supporting people through some of the toughest challenges we have faced. We are supporting businesses and employees to prosper, in the most difficult of circumstances.

“We are proud of the brilliant things our staff do to make the lives of our students better, and our communities brighter. We are incredibly proud of the role we have played through the pandemic, with students and staff supporting the community throughout the COVID-19 crisis and really making a difference.

“We are so much more than an educational institution, we are part of the fabric of society here in Northampton and we are calling on Government to put colleges are at the centre of their plans for the future. It’s time to Love Our Colleges.”

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