A deft touch at IfL may end spat with UCU

14th October 2011 at 01:00
Its new transgender president hopes to act as a peacemaker

Being president of the Institute for Learning (IfL) is not a job for the faint hearted. The professional body for FE lecturers has been involved in a bitter dispute with the University and College Union (UCU) over controversial plans to increase its membership fee. It will also soon be subjected to intense scrutiny in a Government review of workforce professionalism in the sector.

But one suspects it's going to take a lot more than that to get under the skin of Beatrix Groves. She is the first woman to take up the reins as president of the institution, an impressive feat in its own right. But that doesn't even begin to tell the story of her remarkable journey. Ms Groves was born a man.

After 52 years plagued by episodes of intense depression and confusion, in 2008 she told her family and friends the truth. She also told her employer, North Tyneside Adult Learning Alliance - where she works as an adult education tutor - that from the following September she would no longer be teaching as Robert Groves. When she returned to the classroom, she was to be known as Beatrix.

Just two years later, she has been elected to arguably the most high-profile public position ever held by a transgender person in the UK.

"It's very important for me that I am seen as a teacher like everybody else," she said. "I don't ever keep it a secret; I'm very 'out'. It's part and parcel of being me. When I came out, I told colleges that my life is an open book. I can't get blackmailed that way.

"The media treats trans people as weird, odd or a joke. I am not. I take my role seriously. I am a step forward for trans people across Britain. They can see that it doesn't matter where they come from; they can rise."

Most of the students Ms Groves teaches at Wallsend People's Centre are middle-aged men. Many are unemployed; many of them were unlikely to have come across an openly transgender woman before.

But to her surprise, coming out did not affect class numbers. "I teach computer repair, a very macho subject," she said. "I thought the students would find me very difficult to take. But they were really supportive, and very, very eager to make sure I was protected, almost paternal towards me.

"They realised I was someone willing to answer their questions, and be open. It's proved to be an enormous asset. That attitude has helped to keep me respected within the profession."

Just as heartening was the understanding showed by her employers, which Ms Groves describes as "wonderful". But while she is grateful for the support she has received from the FE community, she perceives a lack of diversity as one of the biggest challenges facing the sector.

"One big criticism I have is that there are not enough black and ethnic-minority tutors and lecturers, and tutors with disabilities. We need to have more positive role models on an equal basis to everybody else. My role as president gives me an opportunity to raise these sorts of issues regularly."

The IfL has been involved in a bitter war of words with the UCU, which represents FE lecturers and tutors. Plans to introduce an increased membership fee for the IfL were mooted in the light of government funding cuts, prompting a furious backlash.

Legal action against the IfL seemed on the cards until a review of the workforce's role and status was announced by skills minister John Hayes to ward off an ugly confrontation.

Ms Groves has a keener interest than most to see the issue resolved: she is also a paid-up UCU member. "My role is very much about peacemaking," she said. "The two institutions do not have different roles, as far as I am concerned. They are mutually supportive and important."

While admitting it is regarded by many as "the most boring subject on earth", another priority for her time in office is to campaign for better continuous professional development for lecturers and tutors.

Ms Groves' final ambition is to boost the role of the humanities at FE colleges, which she believes are too often seen only in terms of vocational qualifications.

Against the overwhelming rhetoric about the need for technical training to be made a priority for the UK, she faces a challenge to convince college principals to bring back feminism and phenomenology.

But one suspects that if anyone can build a bridge across the sector, it is Ms Groves.

Beatrix Groves CV

Born in 1955

Education

1997 BA (Hons) in post-compulsory education, Sunderland University

Employment

1984-present Tutor, North Tyneside Adult Learning Alliance

1986-2006 Lecturer, Tyne Metropolitan College

1990-1998 Sessional worker, Barnardo's

1992-2011 Lecturer, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Open universities

Voluntary roles

2011-present President, Institute for Learning

1995-present Founder and general secretary, Association of Part-Time Tutors

1980-present Curriculum leader, Workers Educational Association (Northern District).

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