Is now the time to tackle 'tunnelling' in education?

Following the changes forced upon the college sector by the pandemic, FE should rethink its approach from the ground up

Phil Storrier

College leaders need to make sure staff don't have to "tunnel"

Now is the perfect time to reflect on how we have a chance to rethink FE from the ground up. I believe one foundation for that discussion should be the leadership and strategy models currently deployed in colleges. Without that, the brave new world of remote learning will be fraught with all the same critical issues.

In the middle of March, we received confirmation in our college in Scotland that we would be ceasing face-to-face teaching that day. We had known this was coming, and many had argued for that announcement sooner given that we had seen the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic from Christmas onwards.

Despite this, I remember supporting staff as they desperately tried to shift all their working resources into the cloud or standing in queues outside ICT offices clambering for laptops the day before the college closed. For me, these images are symbolic of the concept referred to by some psychologists as “tunnelling”.

Opinion: A simple leadership lesson: treat staff with respect

News: Scottish FE stops face-to-face classes

More: FE minister offers reassurance to students

Solving problems 

It was on one of my government-sanctioned daily walks in early “lockdown”, listening to a podcast about “solving problems before they become problems” where I first came across this term. It referred to a study carried out by Anita Tucker where she followed nurses in their day to day work.

What she realised was that they were solving problems constantly. The study showed that nurses are resourceful, improvisational and responsive. Nurses didn’t have time to go to their bosses for every issue that arose, nor time to log tickets on helpdesks. In fact, they are so good at solving the problems that issues creating the problems are never addressed and so they are doomed to continue to solve those problems forever. This became known as “tunnelling”. Sound familiar? 

During this current pandemic, our NHS staff have been lauded as heroes – rightly so – but would it not be better if they didn’t have to be? Could you argue across all sectors that if there is a need for heroics then there is a flaw in the system?

I don’t think I could find a lecturer in a college who would not recognise the scenario, and the regular need to react and think on our feet, responding to hourly challenges and quite often for things that should be easily resolved or avoided in the first place. I can’t help but think that this is exactly what a majority of my colleagues are doing right now as they have moved overnight to online delivery with nearly no preparation.

A glaring opportunity

We get our heads down and do our best for students but hide the fact that our WiFi often drops out as classes are continually disrupted, or that we get emails from learners so stressed and tired from working on the front line that they can’t face another online class.

Lecturers have a duty to raise these issues now and the leaders of FE have a duty to listen before we go too far down a road that we miss the glaring opportunity that presents itself.

Sadly, the same issue faces our students across FE. Just the other day, I saw a college tweeting triumphantly about how 75 per cent of learners had engaged in online learning. A remarkable feat, no doubt, but what does that truly mean? And what about the 25 per cent who hadn't (or couldn’t) – what has happened to them and what is FE leadership doing about those students?

I would imagine a high proportion of that 25 per cent came to FE to better their life chances. Perhaps living in poverty, or in insecure work, or facing poor physical or mental health. These students are constantly tunnelling as they solve the issues of studying to improve those chances, only to lose that insecure job that was supporting them to study. They drop out to find an insecure job to support their family and so the poverty cycle goes on. We seem to have accepted that these problems are inevitable and we can’t fix them; I see that as a failure of leadership across the sector.

There are some aspects of current leadership thinking I find almost comical. One of the major sticking points in ongoing strained relations between management and teaching staff in Scottish colleges was about flexibility for working at home. Teaching staff have long argued for this on the premise that we can do our “non-contact” duties essentially anywhere, a concept long scoffed at. Now, it would appear that working from home is indeed the way forward.

We have also been told that industry is not getting the talent they need with young people lacking the key “metaskills” required for the modern workplace, people skills and communication often at the top of those lists. Screens were to blame, they said, with young people spending too much time on their own. Now I see many people suggesting that the “new normal” is to increase the amount of time young people spend on screens using faceless communication tools.

While I understand that we are in a state of emergency and colleges are doing their best, I fear that because of the ineffective strategies deployed across the sector, we will simply continue in the frantic and reactive way we have been in.

The sector needs leadership based in upstream thinking. We must reduce the number of blue sky papers produced by those furthest away from the classroom and move to a strategy of staff-informed policies and conditions that allow us to focus solely on education and the needs of our students. Unless we can make that shift, I fear the same issues that serve to hinder student success and widen the attainment gap will persist, be it from a classroom or a living room. I would like to think we can move to an FE sector that students truly deserve without the need for daily heroics.

I believe the leaders of FE have a critical decision to make at this time: Will they be proactive and truly innovate a new way of thinking and working with staff to find solutions to get us out of the tunnel for the benefit of our students? Or will they simply buy more shovels?

Philip Storrier is a curriculum manager at Glasgow Kelvin College

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