FE is a sector with a complex identity. Caught between schools and universities, it has long struggled to articulate the full extent of what it is and does. So much so that the Skills Commission felt compelled to put together a beginner’s guide for the new intake of MPs – an “FE for dummies”, if you will – to give them a fighting chance of understanding what on earth it was all about.
Accordingly, the issue of professional identity is a peculiarly intricate one in FE. This may go some way towards explaining the bewildering array of professional bodies – the Society for Education and Training, the College of Teaching and Tutor Voices, to name but three – which have cropped up in recent months, each claiming to speak for the average teacher in FE. The point is summed up by the fact that many members of the teaching staff in an FE institution wouldn’t even call themselves teachers, but rather lecturers, tutors or even trainers.
And yet, when you scan the categories for the TES FE Awards 2016, you’ll see one for “teacher of the year”. This led to fierce debate in the preliminary meetings with our judging panel. But it was decided that, in the absence of a suitably all-encompassing job title to keep everyone happy, the Teacher of the Year Award would – for now, at least – remain.
The fact that teaching professionals in FE shy away from this title reveals a lot about the nature of teaching in the sector. It is not adequate to be an individual with a serviceable knowledge of a subject area and the ability to transmit this knowledge to others. Teaching in FE is just as much about having extensive expertise in a professional area as it is about communicating that expertise. The Institute for Learning – the original professional body for the sector – may be no more, but its definition of the concept of dual professionalism stands the test of time. “Professional education and training practitioners,” it explained back in 2012, “are dual professionals, having deep knowledge, conceptual understanding and expertise in teaching and learning processes and contexts for diverse learners, matched with expert subject knowledge and skills.”
Far be it from me to claim that teaching in schools is easy, but the additional demands of the dual mandate required to excel in the FE classroom (or workshop, or studio) make the job a major challenge and worthy of the utmost respect.
Accordingly, as Beatrix Groves explains in this week's edition of TES, finding a coherent pedagogical philosophy that can be applied to all corners of the FE sector – from mandated English for speakers of other languages (Esol) classes for refugees to work-based training for engineers – is no mean feat.
By a delicious quirk of history, the 2015 teacher of the year was Peter Wright of the Blackpool Sixth Form College, who teaches – wait for it – A-level classical civilisation. It’s hard to think of a less “FE” subject.
But the joy of the sector is in its diversity, and this is precisely what the TES FE Awards were established to celebrate. I hope you’ll join us for the ceremony in April to find out who the next teacher of the year is. As to what on earth their subject will be and what job title they’ll use, your guess is as good as mine.