Five changes that should be at the heart of FE reform

In FE, we need targeted and mobilising changes – as well as adequate funding and better pay for staff, writes this former lecturer

Rob Peutrell

FE reform must include these five changes

So, was that the FE revolution that Williamson promised? I guess that some might see poverty relief for further education as revolutionary, given what we're used to.

Additional money is welcome without question, but the problems in our sector aren't only financial. Most working in the sector agree that change is desperately needed. Its post-incorporation history is sadly well-known: funding cuts, cuts in courses, worsening conditions, faltering pay, the disconnection of colleges from their communities, a tendency for vanity projects and similarly vain leaders. In fact, leadership has too often been a cover for entrepreneurial aspirations that have carried no personal risk, reputational aside, but have come with salary hikes that are publicly funded.

I’m sceptical of revolution: revolutions often end with a new class of commissars dominating systems. But I’m also anxious that we don’t fall into a disheartened pessimism that discounts the possibility of change. Of course, pessimism has its place. It’s a reasonable response to warm words and let-downs, and the mindless positivity that somehow pops up in our sector.

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Rather than step away, we should be involved in the debate about the changes we need, even though no one seems to be asking for the views of practitioners – unlike those of the leaders who speak on our sector’s behalf. 

Of course, they are mostly too invested in the present arrangements to change fundamentals. Recently, I came across a document drafted by the Nottingham NATFHE Area Committee in 1999. Out of Chaos was our assessment of five years of incorporation in the Nottingham conurbation, and a call for change – one of many that litters our sector’s recent history. Pessimism? All the way down.

But we need the targeted and mobilising changes, and not the debilitating kind. 

Local democratic accountability

FE colleges are community resources and should be embedded in their localities and civic networks and cultures. Building civic-mindedness and democratic practice into the sector means ending the anachronism of governing bodies comprising mostly middle-class, white men – solicitors, accountants, minor entrepreneurs – who don’t live in the communities their colleges serve.

Colleges shouldn’t be playthings for charitable beneficence. Structures matter. I'm not necessarily suggesting the transfer of the sector back into traditional local authority control, although local authorities have a key strategic role. I'm sure we have the collective imagination to think up systems that are more inclusively democratic.

Educational institutions, not businesses

Whatever their legal status, colleges are not businesses but mostly publicly-funded institutions providing public goods that benefit individuals and communities. But we shouldn’t aim to be business-like, either; private businesses are not the sole conceivable model of efficient organisation.

In English language teaching, there is the notion that we don’t have to pretend that the classroom is something other than a classroom for authentic communication and learning to happen; the classroom has its own authenticity. Similarly, we should value the authenticity of our educational institutions and not indulge in corporate mimetics that can only undermine it.

Ethical leadership

Leadership isn’t pecking order but the capacity to motivate and mobilise diverse individuals with their different views and experiences into a common endeavour. I’ve known senior post-holders who command respect by virtue of their capacity to engage and bring out the best of the people who work to them; I’ve known others who demand respect by virtue of position. For some, management is an escape from the classroom, while there are classroom practitioners more qualified and experienced in teaching and learning than the higher-ups who write the policies and police the quality of provision.

Ethical leaders put ethical purposes first. Students and our communities should be at the centre of our thinking. But meeting the needs of communities implies more than comms strategies and branding. Ethical leaders do not see staff as a means to corporate ends but as ends in themselves – as the people with the skills, knowledge and commitment that make education work. Ethical leadership means dialogue and shared thinking with colleagues and communities, not acting as if leaders somehow know best.


A college should be a community of colleagues who have come together in a common educational endeavour. Trace the etymology. It follows that colleges thrive when they are rich in social capital and when we openly acknowledge that the go-to people are often not those in formal authority. Colleges should be collaborative and instinctively democratic.


Professionalism isn’t compliance and teachers aren’t curriculum delivery assets. Educational professionalism implies the proactive, thoughtful, affective and, crucially, critical engagement of teachers with practice and theory, and with the institutions, ideologies and policies that constrain what we do. If teachers have a responsibility to develop as fully rounded professionals, colleges and policy-makers are responsible for creating the contexts and conditions that enable that professionalism to flourish.

Aside from building the alliance that will organise for change, there are two preconditions for realising these wants. The first is funding adequate to the importance of further education and its diverse educational mission. The second is national pay and contractual arrangements that remove a source of conflict from colleges themselves and signal that post-16 teachers are a nationally valued profession for which the public takes responsibility.

Rob Peutrell was an ESOL and learning support teacher and union activist in further education for 30 years

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Rob Peutrell

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