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Opinion: 'We must prepare students for lives as citizens, parents and lovers, not just employees'

Frank Coffield, emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education, says FE teaching staff should be given a greater say in shaping government policy – not least the area reviews

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It’s taken me almost a lifetime to realise that the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of people working harmoniously together in pursuit of a cause worth fighting for. That’s the sound I heard recently at the first conference of Tutor Voices at the Northern College.

What is this cause? We’re asking for a voice as a means of redistributing power. We want to change the composition of the top table where decisions are made about how our work is organised, because we have something distinctive to offer: expertise acquired from years of teaching; a service ethic to students; and a collective identity. We’re the people best placed to assess whether proposals for change are likely to work or not.

The need for Tutor Voices is made more urgent by the government plans for a national programme of area-based reviews, which are objectionable for three reasons.

  1. The tutors who’ll have to make the new arrangements work aren’t included in the steering groups. The voice of business will be dominant, but we’ve had employer-led bodies since 1985 and the sector is still in a mess.
  2. The purpose of the sector according to government is to raise productivity and economic growth. FE does not stand for “featherbedding the economy” but further education; yet there’s no discussion of the education our students require. It can’t be left just to local businesses and politicians to make all these decisions. 
  3. The purpose of the reviews is to establish the appropriate set of institutions in each area, but only a subset of the institutions – FE and sixth-form colleges – are included. Independent providers can opt into the review process, which means that they can opt out. If all the institutions in an area aren’t involved in the review, the exercise is a waste of everyone’s time and our money. 

Just as objectionable are the criteria by which the FE commissioner will evaluate colleges. Quality is to be judged by student attendance rates, exam success rates, lesson observation grades, student surveys and action plans. This is an accountant’s vision of quality rather than an educator’s or a craftsman’s, because the most important aspects of quality can’t be measured, such as tutors internalising the desire to improve constantly.

We want a new relationship with government where power is shared rather than hoarded – shared with us but also with students, unions, governors and employers. We appreciate that colleges must change in order to remain stable, but endless change threatens to undermine the viability of colleges that have been at the heart of their communities for generations. The country needs networks of strong, well-respected and financially stable colleges.

Their role can’t be confined to training young people and adults in the narrow, specific skills that local industry currently needs. We must fight for them to retain their historic, educative function of preparing students for their lives as citizens, parents and lovers as well as employees.

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