Let’s face it: people look down on FE. They look down on the qualifications and they look down on the students. Even the concept of vocational training is seemingly othered in regards to the big conversations about education. (Well...right up until some massive political shift takes place and it turns out that having a skilled workforce might actually be a good idea after all. I know right? Who’d have thought it?)
We, as teachers, aren’t blameless either. A lot of us do it too. How many times have you heard this golden little nugget in some form: "It shouldn’t be initial teacher training, it should be initial teacher education." (Followed by some self-satisfied chin-stroking and nodding. Maybe the lighting of a pipe.)
"Training" is a dirty word. In this example and countless others, language itself comes with a value judgement and it’s one that’s seen time and time again. It’s one that codifies the accepted pathway of school-university-graduate job. One that places the traditional academic progression route as always at the forefront of discussion as the "proper" way of doing things because, for many who are involved in the discourse, that was the way that they did things.
It’s also reflected in the endless meddling and the cuts that FE has had to endure over the years. Now I’m not saying that that hasn’t happened in other sectors (especially in recent years) but I bet you’ve heard a little less about it. I mean, after all, it’s not proper education, is it? It’s just hairdressers and trunkers, and those are ten a penny, aren't they?
Wait...what? We actually need them? And builders? And chefs? And nursery nurses? And game designers?
'Give snobbery the boot'
The discourse has to change. The language of that discourse has to change and the underlying assumptions that are perpetuated by that language has to change. Because it’s snobbery.
The normalisation and focus on one route of education in England has been at the cost of seeing the value in others. But this hasn’t happened on its own. The prevailing attitude to vocational education, to training as the simple cousin to an academic pathway, has meant that it has been allowed to be marginalised, neglected even, right up until the point where an outside push factor like that of Brexit brings training for work firmly into focus again and everyone starts putting their oar in.
It’s almost as if it is only the prospect of dire economic consequences that managed to make FE and vocational training no longer something to be shoved to one side to make way for the graduates.
There needs to be a shift in perception when it comes to FE. A realisation of its intrinsic value to students and the wider benefits to the economy and a hyperspace jump away from the view that it's the place to go for those that couldn’t make it, who couldn’t hack what is recognised as "doing well". Because that is far too often what the subtext of the discourse is.
'Stop looking down at FE'
I’m unsure as to how to change it. Public profile, parity, a shift away from current definitions of academic "success" may help. But I think it has to start with giving snobbery the boot, being careful about the language you use, and opening your eyes to other ways of doing things.
It’s time for people to stop looking down at FE. But it’s difficult to shake off your prejudices. Maybe they need some training.
Tom Starkey is a teacher, writer and consultant on education technology. He tweets @tstarkey1212