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IfL has helped the Cinderella sector to shine

Teachers in the post-compulsory sector have, with clear justification, often complained about being perceived as being a Cinderella service compared with their colleagues in schools.

They have traditionally and unjustly suffered from lower status, poorer terms and conditions and worse pay. This is despite the huge contribution they make to the education of countless young people and adults, a contribution that has huge pay-offs in terms of economic prosperity, social cohesion and social justice.

FE college teaching was not, in some quarters, even considered a profession. This is despite the fact that many practitioners not only hold teaching qualifications but are experienced and skilled in their specialist fields, from engineering to accountancy.

The status of FE sector teachers has changed in recent years. One reason for this has been the establishment of the Institute for Learning (IfL), an independent, professional and inclusive membership body that regulates and supports the profession and is accountable to its members. Self- regulation through an autonomous professional body - alongside a commitment to continuous improvement and reflection - is one of the hallmarks of a profession and the establishment of the IfL in 2002 represented a major step forward.

On any objective measure, the IfL should be feeling a sense of achievement at the moment. It has grown to some 180,000 members and it attracts one million visits each year to its website. Beyond this, it has secured many successes in terms of public policy, one of the most notable being the Government's acceptance of Professor Alison Wolf's recommendation that teachers with QTLS (qualified teacher learning and skills) status be allowed to teach in schools - a change that 88 per cent of IfL's members surveyed said they wanted. This would not have happened had it not been for the IfL.

This is only the most visible example of the lobbying, campaigning and influencing that IfL has been doing. The institute is respected at all levels of governmental decision-making, where it tirelessly promotes the interests of the profession.

Most IfL members recognise what the institute has achieved: the 2009 membership survey found that 92 per cent of members rated the services they got from the IfL as fair, good or excellent, with 62 per cent saying good or excellent.

And yet the IfL finds itself under attack. Some, probably a vocal minority, are calling for a boycott. The reason for this is the announcement in the 2009 Skills for Growth white paper that the IfL was to become self-financing and members would have to pay their own subscriptions.

The introduction of fees, even at the comparatively modest level of pound;68, was bound to cause disquiet, particularly when members are feeling the impact of recession. But the sector would be bereft if it did not have the IfL. It would lose much of its professional status and its regulatory autonomy. And the move to self-financing means that the IfL cannot be perceived as being beholden to Government, and is instead answerable to its membership alone.

Some have argued that membership of IfL should be voluntary. That would be a mistake. Self-regulation cannot work if individuals can opt out of the regulatory process and the profession becomes divided.

As members pay their own fees, the IfL will have to adjust the way it works and cut its cloth accordingly. But the prize of having an independent and accountable professional body must not be lost.

James Noble Rogers is executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, and a member of the IfL's non-executive board and advisory council.

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