Cogent canter through the history
Norman Lucas is the director of post-compulsory teacher education at London's institute of education. His book, Teaching in Further Education, is in three parts, the first of which is a brisk canter through the history of the nation's FE colleges, with particular attention to the post-incorporation period.
This provides a concise and valuable reference source, illustrating the haphazard and fragmented development of the sector. As Lucas says: "The importance of the historical perspective is that it shows the origins of what has been described as the impoverished legacy and unplanned development of the FE sector, and the neglect of FE colleges by policy-makers".
This account of the history of FE is arguably the best available. It comes up to date with an analysis of the important changes in the transition from Further Education Funding Council to Learning and Skills Council, and the consequent lowering of the profile of colleges, increasingly submerged in the ever more complex structures that are invented.
The second part deals with the training and professional development of FE teachers. This is another history of neglect: this country has consistently failed to give sufficient regard to vocational education, and the circumstances of incorporation, with unrealistic government demands for substantial growth on reduced budgets, made it impossible for colleges to begin serious investment. Again, Lucas is excellent in both the survey and his analysis.
Another development after 1993 was what the union Natfhe has called the casualisation of the FE workforce. Colleges had always made significant and necessary use of part-time staff: now the proportions grew and many colleges began to use agency staff to reduce costs further. There was rarely any opportunity for professional development, and there was no coherent drive to make it a requirement. The FE Funding Council pointed to "the relatively low levels of finance allocated to staff development", but provided no funds to remedy the situation.
The book makes an admirable job of tracing the multitudinous initiatives in the trainingteaching qualification arena with which FE has had to cope in the past 10 years. Whether we have actually made any progress is yet to be seen, but our brave new sector skills council, Lifelong Learning UK, is now in place and we can hope to dispense with a lot of other sets of initials.
We are employer-led, like the rest of industry. We are entitled to wonder, however, whether FE employers actually realise it, and whether it is an appropriate model for the sector.
Professor Lucas argues with some force that teachers in further education, like teachers in schools and in higher education, should be located in a professional model with professional, not occupational, standards.
Where I part company with the professor is in part three of the book, which looks towards a new professional framework - that's fine - but also to what he calls "'the realignment of further education". He points to the diversity of FE, and identifies eight different "teaching and learning traditions', for example, general education, vocational education, NVQs and basic skills.
While it is clearly true that these and other strands require different approaches and skills, I find nothing in these detailed arguments which supports the conclusion that FE needs to be restructured "along the lines of its major divisions". This might be very well received in Sanctuary Buildings and possibly in Number 10, but it takes no account of the excellent practice in teaching and learning to be found across the wide diversity of FE in many colleges.
It is simply not true that it is not possible to achieve high quality across the whole range of activity. What is really astonishing is that so much of what happens in colleges is so good. Some provision can, indeed must, be improved, but well run and well resourced colleges, with staff who are properly paid, can transform not only vocational education but much of the rest of education, too.
This is a good book, thorough, well-researched, cogently written, sympathetic to its subject, but mistaken in its final conclusions. Rather than allow FE to be eviscerated, we need to celebrate and value its diversity.