Julia Belgutay

Stories of inspirational women shine through all the chaos

FE is gripped by strikes and Brexit is looming, but we mustn't lose sight of the power of education, says Julia Belgutay

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Scotland is lucky to have a further education sector offering a world of opportunity. But the new year is barely three weeks old, and yet here we go again: colleges are making headlines not because of the array of wonderful courses on offer to prospective students, but because a dispute between management and lecturers has culminated in yet another bout of strikes.

This week’s strike came only days after it was confirmed that teachers in schools are also likely to be heading towards industrial action over pay, and only a few hours after a Westminster vote that plunged the whole of the UK further into uncertainty and new depths of nobody-has-any-idea-whatwill-happen-next.

It is easy to let this dominate the discourse, but we must resist the temptation, for we all know that, even in the most chaotic of times, education – and further education – is about so much more than pay and conditions negotiations and lecturers on picket lines.

Every day, thousands of young people are looking for that spark – that precious moment when something falls into place and shows them what their future might look like.

Of course, when there is so much upheaval it is harder than usual to see a way through the chaos, so the footsteps of people who have already walked those paths can show us the way ahead.

Smashing down barriers

Later this month, the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) will publish a series of blogs written to mark 100 years of the Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise in parliamentary elections to women over 30.

The series celebrates 14 women who have helped to shape further education and skills over the past century. These range from Harold Wilson’s minister for the arts, Jennie Lee, to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Henrietta Barnett, who with her husband founded the first “university settlement” in the East End of London in 1884.

Their stories and personalities are as varied as the student cohort in any modern FE college, and while their tales will appeal to some learners more than others, I challenge anyone to not be inspired by how they have challenged norms and smashed through barriers. I have to confess that I knew about less than a handful of these women.

Among them is Professor Alice Brown, the former chair of the Scottish Funding Council, first female vice-principal of the University of Edinburgh and the first Scottish public services ombudsman, who must have broken through more glass ceilings in her career than I have fingers. She obtained her Highers in her thirties through college night classes. It is impossible not to be humbled by her achievement – and the grace, mixed with slight embarrassment, with which she shrugged it off when I asked her about this in an interview last year.

What the FETL series of blogs also reminds us, though, is that the wheel of history never stops turning. There will be women just like the 14 inspirational role models in our schools and colleges today, next week and next year. Regardless of the chaotic times we find ourselves in, this is their shot at success. And it’s always worth remembering that it may be the only one they ever get.