Skip to main content

Opinion: 'Further education seems to have forgotten to take democracy seriously'

A founding member of Tutor Voices argues that it's time for FE staff to be given a greater say on the future of the sector

News article image

Some voices count more than others in further education. Local communities, students and teachers are the forgotten voices in our institutions and policymaking – compared with the sometimes choral, often competing voices of ministers, business, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), funders, Ofsted, senior civil servants, college executives, corporations and lead body chief executives. The issue of voice is an issue of democracy, a matter of democratic rights but with practical implications.

Recently, I spoke at college membership body Emfec's annual conference in a session on the forgotten voices in FE policy. Preparing my short contribution, I was struck by the irony that, under the new Prevent duty, colleges are charged with promoting democracy as one of four cardinal British values. Evidence of compliance with this new responsibility can be seen in the almost identical laminated displays on British values now found on college walls. 

Principle and practice

In light of the conference theme, the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee's recent report on devolution was timely. The committee criticised the lack of public participation in respect of the devolution deals currently being negotiated and agreed. The report reminds us that democracy is not just a laminated principle, but a practice that matters. The area reviews demonstrate much the same indifference to democracy.

In Frank Coffield's opening address to the inaugural Tutor Voices conference in September last year, he noted that nowhere in the review documents were there any proposals for the participation of the 200,000 teachers who would be responsible for making the post-review arrangements work. Teachers were not included among the "stakeholders" who would run the review steering groups – corporation chairs, local authorities, LEPs, Ofsted, the Education and Training Foundation and Jisc; the guidance paper only mentioned staff in relation to the internal communications that would inform them of the decisions others had made about their work and future.

Such examples draw attention to a more general problem, one often articulated, including by educational professionals: the crisis of democratic citizenship rooted in the feeling that we lack the individual and collective capacity to make a difference. This feeling, born of experience, undermines the capacity for democratic engagement we urgently need if we are to address the many challenges we face together: climate change and migration; inequality and tax avoidance; the continuing transformation of technology, culture and work; and more.

Skills for life, not just work

In my contribution to the Emfec conference, I stressed the particular responsibility of educators for taking the practice of democracy seriously, a responsibility further education seems to have forgotten. Education involves more than learning work-related skills (or that slippery notion, employability), but should rightly cultivate the skills of critical evaluation, dialogue, solidarity, and coping with difference in which the capacity for engaging democratically in the world is grounded.

If our sector is to take its democratic responsibilities seriously, I suggested, its institutions and policymaking processes should reflect our best democratic aspirations. Yet, our sector's democratic deficit is widely known, not least by those who work in it. In our top-down colleges, teachers are subject to decisions over which they have little direct control. Compliance, not consultation and critical enquiry, is the prevailing norm across the sector; a superficial "learner voice" occupies the space where a culture of informed and active student participation should thrive.

The practical implications of this democratic deficit are well known. When teachers' voices are excluded so too is the richness of their practical professional experience and insight into subjects, students and learning cultures a sector in crisis can ill afford to discount. And as is well-recognised, command cultures make constructive change more difficult; policy and curriculum innovation often fail because teachers are expected to implement decisions made by others. The result is disconnection, resentment and resistance, on the one hand; increasing investment in managerial control, on the other. 

But it doesn't have to be like this. As Donald Schön, author of the classic The Reflective Practitioner, argued, learning systems in institutions committed to reflective practice enable individuals to subject organisational principles, value conflicts and other institutional dilemmas to productive, critical enquiry. John Dewey, the grandfather of the experiential learning teaching advisers so often reference, thought that teachers should both understand and be able to criticise the principles upon which the education system is formed and administered. A teacher, he said, is "not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; they must be an intelligent medium of action".

What is missing across our sector is not only a systemic capacity to think educationally but also to think democratically, to act as if its participants were intelligent actors.

Teachers shaping policy

In the recently published book, The Coming of Age for FE?, Ann Hodgson and her co-writers observe that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, educational professionals have much greater opportunity to shape local and national policy. They refer to consultation processes and reviews involving face-to-face and online discussion forums, in contrast with the closed consultation exercises typically found in England; processes that are open and evidence-based, rather than ideologically driven; and time allowed to enable participation and consensus-building rather than policies rushed to meet political deadlines.

These vital democratic principles could help frame the deliberative inclusion of teachers, students and communities in sector policymaking, locally and nationally, although whether Hodgson and her colleagues’ perception of non-English practice quite reflects the experience of fellow educators outside England would be interesting to explore.

That said, mindful of the democratic upsurge that attended the independence vote in Scotland, the absence of a democratic imagination may well be a peculiarly English trait.  

Perhaps, I should have ended my talk by suggesting that democracy be removed from the displays on British values in most English colleges – until a commitment to democracy is shown in practice.

Rob Peutrell is an Esol and learning support teacher and a founder member of Tutor Voices. He tweets at @RobP79

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES FE News on Twitter and like TES FE News on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you