FE, let's follow Jill Biden's example and step into TV

Finally, there's an FE teacher on the world stage, says Sarah Simons – and while she may be the first, she should not be the last

Sarah Simons

Jill Biden, the US first lady, has promised teachers a 'seat at the table' after her husband Joe Biden's inauguration

At last something un-shit has happened. Mr Trump and his grotty band of flimflam peddlers will soon be out of the White House. Yeah, off you trot Don Don, the Bidens are moving in. 

There is concern about whether the present incumbent will actually acknowledge his eviction, but I’m not arsed about that. All they have to do is send in Dr Jill Biden and she’ll get him shifted quicker than any security team.

She’s not to be messed with. She works in FE. 

Jill Biden: the future first lady who’s a teacher first

More: Why all teachers are like Jill Biden

More by Sarah Simons: Sometimes I like to think of my students as dogs. Why?

There’s been lots of celebration around the fact that Jill Biden is a teacher, and one who carried on teaching during her husband’s previous stint as vice-president. And so there should be. She is fabulous and it’s lovely that a teacher will be in one of the most visible positions in the world. 

But she’s not just any old teacher. She’s an FE teacher. She’s taught English in community colleges for most of her career. So back off schools. The First Lady is ours.

College teachers on the international stage

I’d like to make it clear why it’s so important that college teachers specifically are represented on the international stage. Or any stage actually.

The short answer is because they don’t get much mainstream media attention. It’s assumed that the general public doesn’t know what colleges are and so there’s no point representing people who work in them either factually or fictionally. School teachers? Yes. University lecturers? Yes. FE teachers? Never heard of ‘em.

As a result, the general public (supposedly) carries on not knowing what colleges are and media companies carry on not commissioning stuff about them. And the cycle continues.

The American sitcom Community is a wonderful example of how to glean comedy from a sector that is ripe with narrative potential, so why is it still so underrepresented over here? 

Have a think. Pre-covid, when did you last see an FE college on the telly, appearing in any other context than a politician in a hi-vis-vest-and-hard-hat combo, pointing at machinery and parroting the party line?

There was that Jamie Oliver documentary in 2011 where they took a buffet of celebrated experts then bunged 'em in, one by one, with a group of TV-ready, teenage “dropouts”. I believe it was supposed to be aspirational – it didn’t really work. I remember it well, but only because I sprained my back during a particularly robust rant about it. I’ve just Googled. Rolf Harris was the art teacher… Now I’m even more depressed.

Colleges are almost non-existent as a backdrop to fiction in UK media, save for 1977's Mind Your Language. Set in a college Esol group, the show has a similar level of racial nuance to a Tommy Robinson enthusiast on his 15th can of Stella. It ran for three series and was revived for a further one in 1985. I definitely wouldn’t Google it if I were you… 

Pauline Campbell-Jones is the only other fictional FE teacher I can find in British telly. The glorious grotesque creation of The League of Gentlemen teaches employability skills to people she refers to as "worthless dole scum" in a gloomy makeshift classroom. Though I adore her, the only thing we have in common is our mutual love of pens.

The scripts write themselves

Demographically, FE is whatever you want it to be. Vocational students in colleges, prison education, community groups, teenage resitters, mature students on access to HE, people retraining, or working through an apprenticeship programme. And there are courses where the mix of students is so eclectic that scripts practically write themselves.

And all sorts goes on… I mean on my very first day of working in an FE college, the car park was an active crime scene. Police vans, dog handlers, mayhem. I was absolutely thrilled by the drama.

And there is so much possibility for drama. Let’s have a think…

Here we go.

Four episodes of must-watch intrigue on BBC1 about a local college that’s becoming too powerful, creating all sorts of personal conflict as it sneaks into the fabric of the whole town. Maybe there’s a highly charismatic but viciously ruthless principal who will stop at nothing to keep her gaff seemingly at the top of the tree. But what is she hiding? Is she all she seems? It’s House of Cards set on the local campus.

Maybe it’s something a bit lighter. I smell a sitcom.

A newly qualified teacher begins his job in prison education with unexpected consequences. Or… the on-campus training hairdressers where students learn more than they intend to. Or… the neverending war between the construction and the English and maths team, where the two heads of department are having a tawdry affair.

Or it could be something more grown-up.

Perhaps a documentary, with various esteemed talking heads, noting the journey of further education, from the master and apprentice of Elizabethan times to modern-day mega-colleges. I’m thinking BBC 4 television. One of those Storyville jobs.

Or something else? Come on everyone, get writing, get pitching, get involved. 

We need to Strictly Come Dancing the shit out of the FE sector. No one was that interested in ballroom dancing when it was just elegant professionals clacking about in Blackpool. But when it was doused in sequins and slapped on Saturday night primetime, all of a sudden it was worth watching. If we want people to know about us, maybe we have to resort to showbiz. 

Let’s grab the opportunity of the spotlight Dr Jill provides to FE globally, and get cracking.

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

Find me on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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