Secret Lecturer: What was that lobby all about?

Secret Teacher

The latest statistics on the state of further education in England would scarcely be tolerated elsewhere in Europe. 

Over the past decade, college funding has been slashed by some 30% and funding per student is down 8% over the same period. There are also one million less adult learners, the sector has lost 23,000 staff and lives under the threat of a huge hike in employer pension payments, and it’s all been trumped by the government refusal this summer to pay FE teachers the same wage increase as schoolteachers.

Plenty of ammunition, then, for the sector’s first ever mass lobby of Parliament in pouring rain, fuelled by righteous anger, and yet dominated by positive-thinking camaraderie across the most diverse and yet most unified group of people perhaps ever to have the promoted the cause of FE.

Huge diversity of support 

As one marcher told me, the wide mix of marchers –college principals, lecturers, ESOL teachers and older students, 16- to 20-year-olds (some on a first visit to London), trades unions including ATL, UCU, Unison and NUS, and employer representatives from all types of backgrounds – reflected the huge range of courses offered by colleges. 

Perhaps a date in the summer might have attracted more supporters than the 2-3,000 estimated to have made the trip to Westminster. A working day in the first half of the winter term, when colleges are still bedding down courses and students, may not be the best timing. But given the imminent autumn budget, reports this summer of possible further cuts in the FE sector’s unprotected budget, and staff incensed by a virtual pay freeze, it was a case of ‘can’t wait, act now’.

The political tide may be turning. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn repeated his Labour Party conference pledge to  marchers to raise corporation tax to finance college, adult and higher education fees; shadow education secretary Angela Rayner called for a revival of the education maintenance allowance for 16-19s; and there were pro-reform speeches from Lib Dem education spokesperson and former teacher Layla Moran and the Green Party’s former leader, Caroline Lucas. 

‘Exhausting, but a positive day'

Disappointingly, there was no show from Tory ministers, although, significantly, Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee and a former skills minister, pushed through an early day Commons motion in the morning which called for more funding for FE and was signed by 20 MPs from all the major parties. 

Meanwhile, many colleges reported encouraging reactions from their MPs they met during the day. One marcher told me the feedback was all positive; MPs were keen to meet and willing to listen and recognise the important role played by colleges. “It’s been a really positive day,” he said, “but exhausting at the same time in terms of raising key messages – like the fact that 16-year-olds at college are getting less funding than their year 11 peers in schools. 

“Colleges play a really crucial part in local communities; but to do that and to continue to flourish they need to be funded. The cost of living is rising, pension costs are rising, but our funding isn’t!”

College principals out in force

What surprised me was the number of college principals present at the rally, prepared to take time off during a traditionally hectic start to the new academic year to add a significant voice to the campaign that has not been fully heard before. 

Many were incensed at being worn down by the cumulative pressure of funding and the clear funding disparity between FE and the HE and schools sectors. Where else do you look for efficiency savings among FE staff when they are already at 99% efficiency? 

For principals the pinch point had become too great and they were openly saying we don’t like what we are doing. There was no protection of FE funding, forcing principals to do what they hate most: juggling with staff pay, seeing prized staff leave for better paid jobs in other colleges, schools, universities or industry, struggling to replace staff, and then, as a last resort, making savings through redundancies, all of which, of course, are just no good for colleges. Letting skilled teaching and support staff go can affect an institution’s core business and damage its appeal to would-be applicants even more so than often grossly underfunded facilities. Then application numbers can start to fall if standards start slipping and less numbers equals less funding. Bankruptcy beckons.

FE should always be first choice for vocational education

When the system is broken, there’s no point in continuing to throw many millions into a high quality curriculum for T-levels – and 101 other reforms, one exasperated campaigner told me. Surely the money must be found to enable the basics to work first?

FE, she said, needs to be viewed radically differently – it’s not what some ill-informed people consider to be just a holding space – the functioning part of a remedial system that is just picking up students who the system has already decided are ‘failing’ simply because they are not ‘academic’. FE should not be treated as just a curriculum model but as a corporate partner – it’s not coupled to or ‘coordinated with’ schools, as in Scandinavia, or business as in Germany where it is part of a true legal partnership with government, employers and unions. 

Our uncoordinated FE model has no other voice than its own because there is no legal link to schools, employers  or HE and it is not seen as part of a separate education policy. Our FE sector should, like in several mainland European countries, be the first choice for vocational education. And, if so, how are we preparing students within our school curriculum to make that first choice?

Two-year wait to recruit replacement lecturers

Principals told me of two-year waits to replace specialist lecturers, constant reductions, frozen funding, stretched IT budgets . . . grim experience for people who want to build expertise in innovative education, not austerity-linked efficiency savings. 

Up till now, many colleges have successfully shielded students from the brunt of austerity and thus dampened awareness, ironically depriving colleges of a potentially rich source of campaigners. The lobby, and Colleges Week generally, will have hopefully unlocked fresh young minds to help tackle a massive funding problem that has pushed college budgets to breaking point. Let’s hope enough seeds have been sewn long before the next Colleges Week, whenever that may be.

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