Further Education in The UK: Big, Vital, Transformative, Ignored

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I took a trip down memory lane yesterday. The occasion was triggered by an invitation to keynote on student engagement for a conference organised by FERRN – the Scottish professional development and research network for those working in further education (the equivalent of US community colleges).

Now, I spent 10 largely happy years working in further education (mainly at City College, Manchester) but this was a long time ago. I remember the then Principal, David Gibson, telling me that I had about 4 years if I ever wanted to return to FE: after that, so much would have changed that I’d have lost touch. It was a time of mergers, funding cuts, and fierce pressure to retain students and, to be honest, I was relieved to be moving on, there was a sense of colleagues being ground down under the weight of it all. So, 15 years later, the conference kicked off by outlining the key contextual factors in FE today: mergers, funding cuts and fierce pressure to retain students (maybe I should apply for my old job back). And I was reminded, once again, why further education is, still, described as ‘the cinderella’ sector of UK education.

City of Glasgow College (the conference hosts) have currently 40,000 students. I’ll say that again: 40,000. My old college has similar numbers on roll. I heard of one college receiving 24,000 applications this year for 8,000 places. And what diverse student bodies they have – the ‘cinders’ labels is justified, because they get asked to do everything – students excluded from school, adult returners, young offenders, retirees, return-to-work schemes. For managing these highly complicated and challenging learning environments, the tutors generally receive the least pay, and teach the longest hours, with bigger class sizes, of any sector in education. I heard of one tutor who recently started a course with a class limit of 24. 200 asylum seekers turned up on the first night. Rather than turn them away, hasty arrangements were put in place to make sure they could all be accommodated. I heard many such stories of selfless professional love, and a commitment to democratic education.

Take the case of the sports tutor who had a bunch of young men from Castlemilk (one of the most deprived areas in Europe) thrown at her because, frankly, no-one knew what to do with them. Realising that these men had no desire to learn in their own locality, she merged them with her regular class of students on a sports studies course . She struck on martial arts as the key to unlocking their motivation, ably assisted by a higher-level student (who himself was losing motivation) who happened to be a much-respected kick-boxer. Within weeks, she’d got these young men attending college regularly, because they’d now got a role model, and realised they’d need basic qualifications, if they were to follow his path. The older student became revitalised by her invitation to teach one of her classes, and is about complete his course. University now beckons and he is even running a private exercise class. And guess who’s attending, and recruiting further customers in this self-help venture? Yes, the Castlemilk crew whom everyone else had given up on. Talk about Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

This wasn’t the only such story I heard today. Indeed, there were times when it felt like Paolo Friere was alive and well, and still among us, and I felt privileged to be there.

And, like Cinderella, they are continually ignored, by governments and the media, for the vital role they play in society, outshone by the ‘prestige’ mantle assumed by our universities. I realised today that, in my FE career, I never attended a similar event as today’s conference. Tutors in further education are not expected to be researchers, professional enquirers. The swiss army pen-knife array of skills needed often rules out much interest in further professional enquiry. Yet, here were people, at all stages of their careers, who were devouring learning theories, Foucault, Bourdieu and the like. Their presentations and discussions were of real quality – higher than many international academic conferences I’ve attended.

The funding squeeze further education is now under is in sharp contrast to their cost-effectiveness. How much money might the inspirational sports tutor have saved the tax payer, by keeping the young men from Castlemilk out of a potential life of crime? How many, who fail to get into university in the imminent austere years, will find a new path to employment opening up to them through an inspirational FE lecturer?

A tutor in further education is a case study in adaptive competence. Many of them didn’t expect to be teaching students with such diverse skill levels and back-stories, but they adapt, largely because many of them come from industry, or youth work, or community service, and have the kind of life-skills often missing from the newly qualified teacher. Having recently read Ron Berger’s wonderful ‘Ethic of Excellence’, I recognise that combination of love of craftsmanship, empathy and authenticity of learning which marks out the best practice seen in further education: for these people, project-based learning never went out of fashion.

I had forgotten, but was sharply reminded today, why these tutors continue to do this unheralded job (because, God knows, they’re not doing it for the money, or recognition). But they see, more often than most, the real life-changing force that education can be.

And that seems to be enough for them. It’s about time our governments recognised this sector, not only for the enormously successful enterprise that it is, but also for the lessons in engaging teaching and learning, that the rest of us can learn from.

 

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