Sometimes it feels as if over the last 12 years everyone has had a go at reforming the FE sector. Yet our research on transforming learning cultures in FE reveals that the real strengths in the sector are often overlooked by its critics. For the past four years, we have anually been interviewing and observing more than 160 students from diverse backgrounds on diverse programmes. They show the complexity of the student body and what they want and need for success. Many want more than current policy offers, more than a linear process of passing exams, getting qualifications and a good job.
They also want to enjoy their learning and to balance their studies with other priorities such as economic survival, living independently, supporting a family, working or sustaining a vibrant lifestyle. Students sometimes want things that government or employers do not. Listening to them may enhance the potential for reforming curriculum, teaching and qualifications.
Improving teaching and learning also depends on staff. Yet they are undervalued and often derided as poorly skilled, seen as part of the problem of underachievement. Our project shows that many dedicated staff do an excellent job, often in difficult conditions. This involves what we call underground working: doing things outside job descriptions and official college structures.
Sometimes this stems from the need for tutors to give more of themselves as people than the job demands. This added value is not supported by funding, audit and inspection regimes or recognised. The practice of teaching is an important but neglected aspect of modernisation. Some common features can be applied almost anywhere, but the transfer of how to do it differs significantly from one programme to another.
On a nursery nursing course, a real strength was the sense of tutors and students belonging to a strongly bonded group, tightly focused on the practice of child care. In an entry level drama course, good relationships depended on tutors combining the roles of drama expert and second parent.
On a distance learning course for basic computer skills, relationships were built with each student via telephone and email chats.
These dimensions of good practice do not often fit the criteria for national standards or inspections, so the idea that one model fits all cannot be applied across the sector. We need more flexible strategies.
The learning culture of a college has many parts: student voice, teacher professionalism, curriculum content, qualifications, buildings and facilities, resources, funding and national policy.
Instead of this cultural approach, the factional climate of FE overlooks many of the factors that shape learning and teaching in favour of supply-side indicators such as recruitment, retention, funding audit and inspection. Rectifying the imbalance means abandoning the idea that teaching can be prescribed as a set of competencies.
Although an organic approach is possible, there are serious obstacles to progress. Lack of resources and too many short-term funding streams pressurise colleges into the culture of the now, where financial and practical instability distort the balance of priorities. Things are done cheaply instead of well. The research also shows that funding, audit and inspection regimes are often dysfunctional and fragmented because they lead to accountability that works to support those regimes rather than the local communities and labour markets in which colleges ply their trade.
By Phil Hodkinson, David James, Gert Biesta, Keith Postlewaite, Denis Gleeson and Martin Bloomer (now deceased)
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