'College life wasn't a fairy tale before incorporation'

Nostalgia isn't always a good thing – particularly if you use it to criticise colleges today, writes Sarah Simons

Looking back with rose-tinted glasses at the colleges of yesteryear is pointless, writes Sarah Simons

Nothing’s as good as it used to be. D’you remember way back when everybody worked hard for an honest living, there were only three channels on the telly, and paedophiles hadn't been invented?

D’you remember when you could leave all your doors unlocked, kids never ever answered back, and a family home cost three shilling and sixpence? Milk men! Woolworths! Cups of tea! Etcetera! Oh, life used to be smashing in yesteryear, but sadly it’s a bag of dicks now. In fact, I’m already missing how lovely everything was when I started writing this sentence.


Background: 'What do we need in FE? The human touch'

More from this author: Working during the holidays? Actually, it's ACE

Opinion: 'College supergroups signal the end of incorporation model'


The ghost of FE past

Reader, you may be picking up a wee sniff of sarcasm, or even some roughly veiled rage. And you would be right. There’s a certain strain of nostalgia that sets me right off. It’s not the type where you reminisce about fun or peculiar or homely stuff – Peter Kay’s made a career out of that, and I'm all for it. And it’s not the slightly twee type of nostalgia that manifests in a Cath Kidston tea towel or a faded glass Christmas bauble. The type of nostalgia I find face-punchingly tedious is when time gone by is used to compare everything today negatively.

What’s the point? Yesterday’s done. Slapping a happiness filter on the past so that it fits into the narrative of today being a bit shit, even if today is a bit shit, is futile. And so boring.

I think we’re often guilty of this in FE. Grieving for a fairytale past that didn't really exist. For all my banging on, I’ve done it myself. I once left a teaching job that I really loved, as there was to be a restructure that I knew I wouldn't be happy with. Rather than stay and see, I left with the sole intention of wrapping the memory of those few years in a pretty bow and not allowing them to be sullied by necessary organisational change.

Purpose and place

One of the core FE gripes, especially from fellow teachers, is that colleges have forgotten their purpose as places of education and have slowly slid into being businesses that flog qualifications. In tandem with this moan, some of the FE Lifers tend to bring up the "I" word: Incorporation. The time when colleges were moved from local authority control to being semi-independent businesses. This was back in 1992.

Let’s start with that. A few years ago, I worked on a project to celebrate a college’s landmark anniversary. As part of it, I interviewed lots of former FE staff who had worked there over the years. Many had brilliant stories of the "one big happy family" place of work, before it went all corporate and efficient. Some of the memories were hilarious. A cross between Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, with a bit of teaching chucked in. And many of those stories could definitely be filed under "different times"…

Almost all of those staff left when incorporation happened, as they weren't up for the imminent changes, plus the regime shift also happened to coincide with the introduction of computers, which many of them weren't big fans of either. Fair enough. They knew what they liked and what they didn’t, and I was asking them to recollect.

Colleges are now different beasts

But using a fictionalised version of life pre-incorporation (for those who remember it) is not really relevant as a comparison nowadays. Colleges are different beasts. They have different functions. They serve different communities.

Let’s look at the other bit of the moan - colleges are too business-focused. We all know that if the finances aren't right then the college can't sustain itself. These organisations, regardless of size, have to be financially viable or we’re all out of a job.

I don't think that’s what the moan is actually all about though. I think what we actually mean by "too business-focused" is "stop measuring our value as educators, and the distance our students have travelled, by a set of inappropriate, business-focused, metrics". I think that’s what we mean and I think that complaint is completely justifiable.

It’s not really anything to do with nostalgia then, is it?

Erm… As you were…

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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