Big fish swims against the tide in pursuit of a policy sea change

10th October 2008 at 01:00

Pin-ups aren't supposed to line the corridors of colleges. There are good reasons for this: for a start they are decidedly non-PC. Added to which, you can bet there's a college rule banning them.

Nonetheless, having just read the pamphlet "Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority . ", I'm going to make the case for its author to be treated as an exception.

The pin-up in question is Frank Coffield, professor of education at the Institute of Education in London. Distinguished academics are unlikely Page 3 material, so in the interests of propriety it might be best if he kept his kit on. Still a tasteful head and shoulders of the professor stuck to staffroom walls would be no bad thing. Apart from anything else, it might lead their occupants to read his pamphlet.

Its very title is a provocation. While words such as "prioritise" and "teaching and learning" slide glibly across ministers' and college managers' tongues, their actions argue the opposite. And this contradiction is the burden, or one of the burdens, of Professor Coffield's argument.

"I am aware," he writes in his introduction, "that I am swimming against the prevailing tide but, as Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked, only dead fish swim with the stream." Professor Coffield is no dead fish. One by one he examines the shibboleths of FE and finds them wanting.

He proposes, instead, a renewed commitment to real education - a word he uses unashamedly, noting current enthusiasm for "skills" or "training", and arguing that they should not be the only game in town. His vision of FE is collaborative, with an emphasis on theory being used to guide practice, and policies being based on research not fads.

Not surprisingly, then, he doesn't like the way FE, since gaining freedom from local authorities, has become increasingly modelled on business. After a swipe at the "obscene rewards" of some bank execs, he asserts that, "In essence, education is not a market, and it suffers if it is treated as such."

Nor is he fond of the near exclusive emphasis on learners. Teachers, he insists, are people too. Some people have wanted to replace them with computers, he observes, before quoting BF Skinner: "Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be."

But Professor Coffield maintains that teachers should be at the centre of learning. "When I ask learners of all ages what has been the greatest influence on their careers," he writes, "they immediately discuss the beneficial effects of inspiring, committed, knowledgeable and sensitive teachers, as well as the baleful effects of poor teachers."

He argues that if lecturers are to raise their game, they need to form a learning community, be encouraged to improve their practice and nourished by educational research. For this, they need the commodity that successive initiatives have taken from them: time.

Here Professor Coffield shows how decidedly he is swimming against the tide. "Finding . time for tutors to devote to learning communities means . something more must be done about the heavy demands on staff by bureaucracy, by the paperwork required by awarding bodies and by inspectors, all of which divert energy and time away from Tamp;L."

And on he swims. Colleges must become democratic institutions, he says, giving greater voice to learners and tutors. Why is it, he asks, that there is no mechanism for feedback to ministers from those on the frontline - the tutors?

Professor Coffield recognises that we are a long way from his vision of a fully professionalised, reflective and involved teaching force. He quotes Stephen Ball, a fellow researcher, on the "combined effects on staff of the new styles of management, of the market, and of accountability". Essentially this boils down to increases in the pace, pressures and stress of work. At the same time, teachers are being monitored more closely. And underpinning all this is "a developing gap between senior staff (concerned with budget, recruitment, public relations and impression management) and teaching staff (concerned with learners' needs, record-keeping, control and curriculum coverage)".

So how can this growing chasm be bridged? One way, Professor Coffield suggests, is that senior managers should go back to the classroom. And if they are going to teach, they should take on some of the more demanding students. "Nothing is more likely to convince staff and learners of the centrality of Tamp;L than seeing principals . struggling, as we all do, with the demanding job of re-engaging in learning young people and adults with a history of educational failure."

For that alone, you may think many lecturers would be happy to confirm Professor Coffield's educational babe-of-the-month status. Then he turns to the issue of pay: "I am genuinely puzzled (about) the anomaly whereby staff in FE colleges have for years been paid less for doing the same work (as) their counterparts in schools or sixth-form colleges." Closing this gap, he estimates, would cost around Pounds 200 million, adding: "If ministers had learnt the lesson . namely that the staff in FE need to be treated as essential allies rather than as whingeing adversaries, then they would have eliminated the disparity."

So why don't they? Here we must provide our own answer. Yes, lecturers have votes, but they are a mere irritant compared with Labour's preferred constituency: middle England. When lecturers go on strike, no children are sent home, no parents clamour for a solution. To Professor Coffield we matter; to Labour we manifestly don't.

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