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'Colleges inspire me every day'

Ahead of Colleges Week, Andrew Otty explains why further education needs to shout about what vital work it does

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Ahead of Colleges Week, Andrew Otty explains why further education needs to shout about what vital work it does

FE inspires me. I loved being a schoolteacher, but it didn’t fill me with the righteous passion that I’ve come to feel for colleges. Recently, thanks to a cough, car trouble, and a variety of other minor crises, there have been a few tough days for me, but even on the toughest days in FE it’s hard to forget the privilege we have. We work with students who are about to step out into the world. The impact we can have in a short space of time is visibly transformative. Far more of our students are likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds than in other sectors, so we are the frontline of the battle for social justice.

Yet we remain underfunded and undervalued, because we teach other people’s children. Policymakers do not send their kids to colleges. Misguided snobbery prevents proper parity of esteem for vocational routes. Hands smothered with Swarfega at the end of the day are not what aspirational parents want for their children after decades of attacks on industry and simultaneous idolatry of those who gamble with other people’s money for a living. Where we do have exceptional academic provision in FE, it’s hard to spell out all our achievements without our marketing seeming too aggressive to the schools whose cooperation we rely on. Meanwhile school sixth forms persist due to inertia and whispered fictions about class sizes and expertise.

I wish those outside of colleges could see what I see.

'FE inspires me'

Earlier this year, I was at work late and ended up heading to the college’s training restaurant for an absurdly cheap seven-course dinner. The food was great, but it was the service that made me feel a bit overwhelmed. I was surrounded by GCSE-resit learners I either taught myself or knew from popping in and out of lessons. The pride they were taking in the work they were doing was deeply moving. In that domain they were the experts and they wanted to show me the best of themselves. Then, in the background, I noticed their hospitality tutor keeping an eye on them. She saw me too and came over to say hello. Thing is, she’d been teaching English GCSE for me that morning, but was still there at 10pm, bright-eyed and attentive to her hospitality learners. That’s why FE inspires me.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been delivering some sessions for my college’s most academic students on building a learning community and nurturing curiosity. It’s been a lot of fun, but I’ve been most struck by the support they give one another. They have been willing to expose their feelings and speak candidly because they’ve left the schoolyard far behind. They represent a very broad range of personalities and interests, even of nationalities, but are one of the most cohesive groups I’ve worked with in terms of their united ambition to learn. That’s why FE inspires me.

Feeling especially throaty one morning this last week, with my head pounding, I looked at the writing frame I’d scrawled across the whiteboard for one of my English-resit classes, in three different colours, with squiggly arrows spreading out and across it like a bloodshot eye, and realised it looked completely mental.

Standing shoulder to shoulder

“Can you… give it a go?” I rasped. Their heads went down for the next 20 minutes, giving my voice a blessed relief, and they smashed it. Those students, some on their fourth attempt at the GCSE, who might understandably have every reason to resent English and show me no sympathy whatsoever, not only showed a merciful kindness but also a clear determination to master one of the hardest tasks in the exam. That’s why FE inspires me.

As a sector we have plenty going for us. The two Davids – Hughes and Russell – are balanced, articulate, intelligent leaders. Their organisations, the Association of Colleges and the Education and Training Foundation, both do extremely valuable work for us and I’ve certainly felt the direct benefits. The Society for Education and Training has quickly established itself as a force for research and professional development, and I’m excited about their contribution to the future of FE. I can tell you as a manager in a college that the University and College Union does a damnably good job of fighting for its members (I am also a member). Our SLTs in colleges are really quite impressive; they represent a genuine meritocracy and embody our collective professionalism. Most importantly, though, just look to your peers and the quality of the people we work with every day. They’re why FE inspires me.

There’s no excuse for those who speak of social justice to then countenance the underfunding of FE; the engine of social mobility and the heart of post-16 education. It’s underfunded because they believe they can get away with it. In the week ahead, as we show that we love our colleges by sharing our stories or marching on Parliament, we will stand shoulder to shoulder and unite our voices towards government. Let’s make them see what I see.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE

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