As this new academic year kicks off, I feel in a campaigning mood. It’s been brought on partly by the government’s refusal to fill the average – and growing – £7,000 pay gap between school teachers (awarded a 1.5-3.5% pay rise this summer) and college lecturers (no award) but also by our continuing unregulated status as FE teachers. Are we considered professionals or not and how can we bring about change?
The recent area reviews completed across the sector look at lecturers’ jobs as just units of cost and don’t credit FE staff with the professional recognition they are due. This approach has a knock-on effect on college budgets forcing mergers because colleges don’t have enough funding.
Where’s the focus on professionalism?
It’s significant that FE teacher training courses have almost lost any focus on professionalism or how much subject knowledge a teacher has – pedagogy is all.
No individuals can be blamed for this change – let’s put it down to a general thrust towards ever greater flexibility in the workforce, the need for transferable skills and placing people into different, continually changing roles under the huge shadow of casualisation. Permanent, full-time jobs become fractional and this then creates a problem when trying to develop a professional culture.
Colleges have been forced to become so cost-conscious that they stick to mandatory CPD and an annual low unit cost of around £1,000 based on staff delivery and facility provision. Promoting innovative teaching and learning to make us all better teachers has slipped off the agenda.
The answer is self-help – and responsive management
Lecturers need a voice to reverse this trend. And it has to start with self-help and responsive management. I’ve tried to develop a research group in my college but with little help. My senior managers do not have the time to be interested, I would have to secure funding myself to get it off the ground, and, of course, it must not affect anyone’s core business of teaching and learning. So, time to develop the idea would be very limited within the crammed college timetable.
One colleague from another college described his attempt to develop a best practice network to help HE course students develop research methods including access to academic journals. I was astounded when he said he too had found no one able to support his genuine attempt to develop a skillset.
Colleges give us space to start asking questions
However, despite such setbacks, FE colleges do at least allow you the space to start asking such questions – something impossible in most workplaces. It’s what keeps me optimistic about future change. Had other staff wanted to join my colleague’s network and develop it, it could still have taken off on a voluntary basis. Surely the challenge facing us all is really how do you enthuse lecturers and others who work in the challenging environments of finance and cost to look at their own practice and seek to develop it voluntarily?
Fortunately I know of examples of forward-thinking management teams who do support innovation – though not across the board. And I also know of several research networks over the past couple of years where FE practitioners meet with others from different colleges to research, looking at teaching and learning best practice, presenting their own work or research and hearing how others innovate in teaching and learning. The fact it has developed organically from a grass roots level is a new, very important development.
Look out for fledgling networks – they are not obvious
I believe now is the time to enter the sector when these fledgling networks are starting to develop vocabulary around professionalism as it applies to vocational and technical education in particular.
You do have to keep your ear to the ground, though, as you don’t often hear of them through college – everyone is so busy on day-to-day activities – but once you open the box you are in very different world where people are genuinely interested in your teaching and practice. Best place to start making contacts is the Learning Skills and Research Network (LSRN), which is trying to join all these dots.
US approach to sharing best practice
Innovative thinkers in FE are also now looking to an HE ‘scholarship’ approach to vocational and technical training developed in the US based on Boyer’s Scholarship Model – applicable both to HE and FE practice.
Devised in 1990, the Boyer’s Model expanded the function of academic research into four areas to include not only the traditional ‘discovery’ category (original research) but also ‘application’ (applying areas of educational knowledge and pedagogy research to outside the classroom eg. workplace or community – I’ve never, for instance, seen any college develop any model of community outreach to show how they do it and what works well).
The other two categories are ‘teaching and learning’ (professional practice – how teaching and learning actually works and can be shared); and ‘integration’ (integrating approaches to education with other areas of work, eg development of a curriculum – you could, say, co-develop a curriculum with an employer, a council or a community group).
Lecturers need to document what works for them
Boyer’s Model introduces areas that colleges have worked in but have never documented any practice around. It promises much to new FE staff who can use it as a reference to anchor and judge their own work.
The Association of Colleges has just completed a three-year research project based on Boyer’s Model, resulting in the Scholarship Framework, a free set of resources for colleges offering HE courses to improve teaching and student learning based on the Boyer forms of scholarship.
The task now has to be to link the AoC’s work with the new networks so that those muffled voices in our colleges can begin to be heard more clearly. At last, FE teachers can be assured that their best practice is starting to be acknowledged, shared and talked about by fellow lecturers. This is something that we are in charge of and should look to do for ourselves.