We need a confident and professional FE sector. Attitudes to staff and training are likely to be important in securing this goal. But many current and future proposals are decidedly unhelpful.
A prime example is the plan to maintain the Institute for Learning (IfL). FE minister John Hayes believes agreement between the IfL and unions is important for upholding a professional workforce. But the workforce itself can feel held up, rather than upheld, by the IfL. Its demands for registration and fees are viewed by some as little more than highway robbery.
Lecturers' unwillingness to pay the IfL fee is more than mere cussedness; it reflects deep-seated dissatisfaction. To be frank, the IfL is not a body for lecturers, and was never really intended to be. Its very title, the Institute for Learning, downplayed those who teach in favour of those who are taught. From that point, the IfL always seemed more likely to undermine the position of lecturers than enhance it.
Some argue that the IfL has helped raise perceptions of teachers beyond the college environment - and not all who claim this are associated with the institute. A common argument here is to underline the work it has done accrediting QTLS (qualified teacher learning and skills status). The Wolf review of vocational education this year did suggest that the qualification should be regarded as an acceptable basis for school teaching, but did not fully explain why.
The Wolf report actually only mentions QTLS twice. The first suggests that recruiting FE teachers to schools would help avoid inefficient use of buses - not the greatest endorsement.
The second runs entirely counter to increasing the professional status of teachers as a whole. This recommendation on teaching seeks "to clarify and evaluate rules relating to the teaching of vocational content by qualified professionals who are not primarily teachersdo not hold QTLS".
These recommendations never amount to saying QTLS is equivalent to qualified teacher status (QTS). They may imply a modest gain in options for a few vocational lecturers willing to plough a lone furrow in schools, but only at the expense of a reduced level of professionalism all round. Lecturers can only teach in schools because practically anybody with a skill can. Yet this gain remains the best claim the IfL can make to justify its existence.
Overall, teacher professionalism has been forced to retreat some distance. But, at least with QTS most still undergo study at university. Is this part of the plan for raising the professionalism of FE lecturers? Well, no. Instead of such a logical solution, there is a draft proposal to give the IfL even more influence. In addition to providing the licence for those who have completed their teaching courses, it is suggested that the IfL should oversee teaching programmes. This is the worst kind of vertical integration: those serving as gatekeepers for the unwanted licence would also have the capacity to undermine the teaching qualification itself.
Of course, training needs to meet the demands of the workplace, but if we are to see QTLS as equivalent to QTS, it needs to be more than mere learning on the job. It needs to allow for critical review of process. Take this training away from colleges and provide it in universities - that is the way to take professionalism seriously.
But, before we can make these improvements we need to prevent the damaged IfL from weakening teacher training programmes and reducing the profession's status still further. Some suggest that if lecturers do not pay its fees then the IfL might face a funding shortfall. But why worry about its finances at all when there is a simpler solution: close it.
Graham Fowler is a researcher, writer and consultant.