The awarding of the first three Technical Teaching Fellowships, by the Education and Training Foundation and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, at the end of January was significant – not just for the three individuals on whom they were bestowed, but for the whole of technical education.
The significance for the three new fellows – James Maltby of Plumpton College, Stephen Mariadas of Exeter College and David Martin of City and Islington College – is clear. These three talented individuals will be given the backing and platforms to escalate the impact of their work during the 2019-20 academic year. What they do will have a legacy, not just for their own reputations, but – vitally – for the lives, skills and employability of learners across the UK.
To really understand the full significance of the Technical Teaching Fellowships, though, it is necessary to look at the wider context in which they have been awarded. Further education is an area that has, for some time, been the less recognised and much less well-funded sibling of the education sector. Schools and universities have tended to dominate political and public discourse about education and they have – and continue to – take the lion’s share of funding.
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Joining 'a very exclusive club'
In recent years, the ground has started to shift, with factors including the skills gap, a need for greater social mobility and Brexit focusing attention on the sector. One important response to that focus has been the creation of T levels. Naturally, given the political will and reputations attached to them, T levels have come with ringfenced funding to help ensure their successful implementation.
As significant as the new T levels are, though, they are just part of the technical education picture. Getting people to appreciate the wider context is the real challenge. That is where initiatives such as the new fellowships come in. They are awarded in conjunction with the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, a prestigious body with a heritage that dates back to 1850 when it was established by Queen Victoria to organise the first world trade fair, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Today, the commission has a rich pedigree in the granting of fellowships and awards of various kinds, and many recipients have gone on to become Nobel Prize winners, placing our new fellows in a very exclusive club.
'FE's occupying its rightful place'
The venue for the exhibition of 1851 – the iconic Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – was designed to impress. Its creators clearly understood that important events require inspiring backdrops. The presentation of the fellowships required a similarly impressive and fitting venue, and the Royal Society fulfilled those criteria admirably. These fellowships, bestowed on the leading lights of technical further education, are naturally at home in such settings.
That’s an important fact to embrace. Technical further education is not an imposter in such company; it is occupying its rightful place and has every right to expect and demand that recognition. We know that excellence is a reality of everyday life in what we do, and we know about the fundamental contribution that we are making to the world. That should be celebrated.
The Technical Teaching Fellowships are about much more than simply promoting the work of three jolly good fellows; they are about the status of the sector being of the highest importance to UK plc. We should shout this from the rooftops.
David Russell is chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation