A rain check on further education - a new report called Leadership, Further Education and Social Justice published this month by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (Fetl) - reflects on some of the key reasons why so many teaching staff are drawn to working in FE colleges despite the austerity cuts, commercial pressures and lack of funding.
In the AoC’s ‘Day in the life’ online Q&A job profile series, the most popular answer to the question what do interviewees like about working in FE is along the lines of ‘my joy in seeing my students progress, change and succeed’.
The Fetl research delves behind that reaction. The document analyses how much colleges have changed before and after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which removed FE colleges from local government control, made them independent financial entities and introduced markets and competition to a traditionally local, collaborative system. Where, it asks, does the magic of further education still lie, often hidden but in some cases very evident?
For would-be teachers and support staff weighing up job prospects at a particular college, the report acts as a valuable ‘checklist’. It’s a document that throws light on how seriously a college is living up to its traditional role as its local community’s main centre of learning for all aged from 16 to 90. Is it still an effective catalyst in raising hopes and morale and in setting new horizons despite incessant political interference and financial pressures? Is it, in fact, still flying the flag of social justice and equality? How do you know if a college is reflecting these values and, if it’s not, are you prepared to work there?
One of the first indicators lies in how much a college has held onto or discarded its history, its original core values, according to one of the report’s co-authors, Rob Smith, professor of education at Birmingham City University and a former FE English lecturer.
At the adult, residential Fircroft College, one of three detailed case studies on colleges that epitomise the spirit of FE, students “talk about the magic of Fircroft,” says Smith. By that they mean a combination of the environment - it’s a beautiful old Cadbury’s building in equally stunning grounds - with the tranquillity of this location that creates a kind of teaching and learning space that is “very frank”.
The college founders based it on the thinking of the 19th-century Danish educationalist, NFS Grundtvig, founder of the folk high school movement (institutions for adult education that generally do not grant academic degrees). The movement encouraged critical citizenship and working collectively and collaboratively. Grundtvig saw learning as a social practice, with interaction, discussion and debate between people of different backgrounds viewed as essential.
“It was all about bringing dignity to people,” says Smith. “It was not about [social mobility and] you having to escape from your background but rather about finding out while exploring through learning, who you were connecting your identity to. You could then look ahead, go back into your community and continue to function there so the whole community benefited.” Sadly, today’s housing market makes that less possible and people often have to move away to find affordable homes and thus lose their vital connection to place. It’s a trend that somehow needs reversing.
The good news is that “those college staff with a strong set of values around social justice can harness them to their work as teachers. And that’s a fabulous place to be.” In fact, Smith applauds the Association of Colleges’ chief executive David Hughes in his attempts to get policy-makers to think beyond the limiting concept of UK Skills plc.
“He’s trying to represent a broader vision of what colleges are - that they are a local resource connecting with communities. He wants to place more emphasis on meeting social needs - it should not just be about skills.”
For Smith, good FE pedagogy is a model that university teachers need to start adopting - it’s about teaching the whole person and developing a particular kind of relationship based on sincerity and confidence-building. The word ‘lecturer’ does not do anyone any favours - it suggests talking at people rather than interacting with them holistically. It’s something discerning FE practitioners understand. Their university peers could do likewise.
So where does all this leave the would-be FE teaching recruit? Smith’s response is to urge them to get down to the college canteen and put their questions directly to students. Is their college taking them seriously, concerned about them as individuals, and thus sprinkling them with their share of magic dust?
Are their tutors and teachers in it for the long haul that is so often needed by learners who have not had the best start in life? Or do they feel they are just a government number, a bum on a seat? Are they, in fact, moving along a uniform production line to feed the increasingly insatiable demands of a post-Brexit UK Skills plc - a giant conglomerate that is forcing colleges to move away from their tried and tested healing and holistic approach that turns out skilled citizens ready for anything?
Will the new government start to listen, learn from the past and honour its funding pledges? Time - and lobbying - will tell.