The future of the sector should be in your hands

20th February 2016 at 10:00
picture of TES FE editor Stephen Exley
As area reviews continue, it's vital that the sector's workforce is able to have its voice heard

It’s an unfortunate but inescapable fact that many employees feel put upon, taken for granted and ignored by their superiors. Thankfully, the government has taken the important step of involving the FE workforce in the wholesale reimagining of the sector, by inviting representatives from the University and College Union (UCU) to sit on the national advisory group for the area reviews.

There’s just one small problem: this decision was made in January – a full six months after the group’s first meeting. Those sitting around the table for these meetings since last summer have included representatives aplenty from governmental departments, the funding agencies, colleges, Ofsted, the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), local authorities, local enterprise partnerships. But it’s only now, half a year on from the start of the process, that UCU representatives have been invited to the party. And even that’s only after some badgering from the Trades Union Congress.

Serious problem of staff representation

Irrespective of whether or not you think the UCU is best placed to stand up for the FE workforce, this example highlights the serious problem of staff representation in the sector.

The first professional body for the sector’s workforce, the Institute for Learning (IfL), ran aground after a protracted and bitter row with UCU over membership fees, with numbers dropping from a peak of more than 180,000 to just 35,000 when the organisation was closed down in 2014. Since then, IfL’s membership has been taken over by the ETF, under the banner of the Society for Education and Training. Then, last summer, came the revelation that FE teachers would also be able to join the proposed College of Teaching – although if you want to know whether this fabled body will ever materialise, a Magic 8 Ball is probably your best bet.

Crisis of democratic citizenship

The latest organisation to emerge is Tutor Voices, a ground-up national network for further, adult, community and skills educators. The fact that this plethora of bodies has emerged suggests that no one has yet managed to get to the crux of the problem.

As Tutor Voices co-founder Rob Peutrell puts it in a comment piece on the TES website, there is a “crisis of democratic citizenship rooted in the feeling that we lack the individual and collective capacity to make a difference”. And it is such frustrations that occasionally reach boiling point – the strike planned for next week over pay in general FE colleges across the country being a case in point.

Wholesale restructure

Peutrell also points out that “policy and curriculum innovation often fail because teachers are expected to implement decisions made by others.” It’s no secret that area reviews will result in the wholesale restructuring of the sector, with mergers, closures and redundancies now seemingly inevitable. This surely makes staff representation more essential than ever. And yet the very people who will be most affected by the structural overhaul have been largely excluded from the process so far.

A cynic might suggest that this is simply because the direction of travel is already known – and it’s simpler for the decision-makers to stick their fingers in their ears than to listen to the inevitable sound and fury that will ensue. But if the government is to avoid ending up with an even more disenfranchised workforce on its hands, it’s time to open up the area reviews to include the people who will have to make them work.

@stephenexley

This is an article from the 19 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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