'It's time to move beyond the "tragic life story" narratives of further education'

5th December 2017 at 16:58
FE needs to move beyond simply 'making a difference' – it's time for people in the sector to debate, provoke and write their own narrative, says Lou Mycroft

As rapporteur at the conference to mark the launch of The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE last month, hosted by the Consortium for Education and Training in Huddersfield, I moved from session to session, from real to virtual, to sketch not only the message of the day but its spirit. This was no normal book launch. What made the event memorable was not its homogeneity but the diverse and creative tension of participants. In further education we are realising that passion and vocation are not enough: we need fine disruptive thinking, too.

I realised for the first time what a keynote should be: not a jolly for the "most esteemed", but a setting of tone. Former executive director of the 157 Group and chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, Lynne Sedgmore’s honesty was breathtaking, signalling to us that there was no room for passivity. We were there to contribute our own thinking: critical, affirmative, disruptive. Professor of vocational and higher education at the University of Birmingham, Ann-Marie Bathmaker compelled us to move beyond the individualist "tragic life story" narratives of further education – powerful as they are. Empathy plus activism is what drives social change and what’s needed now is productive solidarity, rather than random, self-affirming acts of kindness.

I’m going to touch a nerve here, but the event showed that it is time to recognise the dark underbelly of the FE leitmotif: "making a difference". Education has no shortage of ego-driven princes willing to corrupt our fine words and twist vocational goodwill into exploitation. The danger is that we collude: convincing ourselves we are "making a difference" while serving the status quo. James Avis’s concept of "comfort radicalism" was a useful touchstone for the day, giving us a vocabulary with which to challenge each other and ourselves.

Hope for FE

The corruption of educational values was a recurring theme. "O rose, thou art sick", wrote the poet and social commentator William Blake, back in other patriotic, austerity-ridden days. As I earwigged at other sessions at the conference, I heard metaphors of plague and putrefaction, stories of Machiavellian manipulation, under-investment and over-regulation. And yet the day was not dark: on the contrary, it fizzed with life and hope. Each presenter, each tweeter, each participant brought to life Raymond Williams’ exhortation that  “to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”.

There is a genuine and growing research movement in FE, a critical community of dancing princesses overturning the Cinderella metaphor (depressingly used recently by Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman): thinkers, researchers and activists who are not afraid of debating diverse and opposing views. From master plumber and education professional Simon Reddy’s compelling argument that UK apprenticeships breach the trust of young people, through educationalist and researcher Rajiv Khosla’s likening of performance management practices to battery hen farming, to the genius of programme director at the University of Hull Carol Azumah Dennis’s reading of Niccolo Machiavelli’s "letter to principals", delegates were assailed by provocative ideas. No wonder that, days later, our thinking is still processing out via the #hudpowerfe hashtag on Twitter.

If this is a movement for change, it’s a rhizomatic one, drawing from a deep well of growing solidarity. Joel Petrie, a founder member of Tutor Voices, talked about FE's genesis, the bringing together of the FE and the Twelve Dancing Princesses contributors back in 2014 and how the infectious vitality of that action has spun out on social media, energising research associations such as ARPCE and TELL, conferences and giving rise to Tutor Voices, the determinedly "not an organisation" but a campaigning network. The outcome is no new monolith, but the emergence of opportunistic sites of struggle, speaking truth to power and arguing with intelligence, determination and affirmative hope for a new FE.

The energy of the day, visible on the outside and almost overwhelming from within, was not without pain. Programme Leader for the MA Education at the University of Greenwich, Rania Hafez drew on old stories when she asked why education is still "weighing the pig" when we can see it is starving, why we pretend to touch the hem of the emperor’s gown when he’s clearly starkers. When participants talked about the “survivor guilt” of escaping FE for HE, it’s more than obvious that the endless divisions of education – early years, schools, FE, community, HE – are separating and destroying us. This movement is seeking neither obedience nor incorporation but radical transformation and the moment to write new policy has come. After all, it’s not immediately obvious that those princes with power have any bright ideas.

Lou Mycroft is a facilitator, writer and public speaker 

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