Dear Ted

29th November 2002 at 00:00
I have taught in FE for 22 years. Over that time my department has shrunk from six staff to two. Why didn't the recent FE strike make the front pages?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

Too many people see FE as the poor relation of the education system. It has done a magnificent job in extremely diverse ways, ranging from basic literacy to degree-level work. But it's never been accorded the esteem or the resources it deserves, although the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, recently announced another pound;1.2 billion for the sector.

Our society is one of the most snobbish on earth about vocational education, unlike countries as diverse as Germany, Russia and the United States, where some of the top institutions are those preparing people for their work.

You only have to look at the curled sneer that greeted the launch of courses for car park workers, which were aimed at the traditionally untrained and covered important matters including safety, accident and crime prevention, sanitation and customer service. But every second-rate journalist in the UK sniggered at imaginary PhD courses for them.

The FE sector often picks up where the mainstream system has failed, giving students a second or third chance to show what they can do. There are thousands of success stories, few of which get the publicity they deserve.

I am not sure the education profession generally, let alone the public, fully understands the trauma that lecturers in FE have experienced, in terms of their workload, stressed conditions and lack of basic equipment and resources in many cases. The issue should certainly have been given more publicity than it received and I have passed your letter to the editor of The TES.

That said, FE teachers have a lot to be proud of and should be given all the support the other education professions can offer (see The TES FE Focus pages every week). Many FE colleges will be working ever more closely with schools during the next few years, offering coherent programmes for 14 to 19-year-olds, so perhaps this will gradually improve public and professional understanding of the valuable work they do, often in the most difficult parts of our society.

You say

Celebrate FE'snoble tradition

The temptation is to bang on about under-funding and a Cinderella service. Problems: you end up wallowing in self-pity and further reinforce the negative image people have of FE. Far better, surely, to emphasise the positives.

Celebrate the diversity of the sector. In what other institutions do degree students share refectory facilities with society's least-able and otherwise excluded? FE is a driver of a truly inclusive society. Look at the variety of courses on offer. The liberal model of education is still just about alive and kicking in the flower arranging, philosophy for beginners and folk music classes. Think about the strategic role FE must play in a knowledge-based economy. Not to mention its vital role in training the plumbers, mechanics and computer technicians of the future. Consider the difference FE has made to the lives of millions of learners who may have been short-changed by other parts of the educational system. FE has a noble tradition of being the "last chance saloon" for many, and has helped to turn around many a wasted life.

Be proud. The alternatives - embittered cynicism or whingeing self-pity - are too self-defeating to contemplate.

I Hayward, Preston

Grin and bear it

So, 22 years in FE, eh? Well, well, well. The initial reaction is "Who's been a silly lecturer then?" What on earth possessed you? Didn't you see the writing on the wall? After all, 22 years takes us back to the Thatcher era. You couldn't have predicted that the famous British political pendulum would jam for the next 17 years. Less still could anyone have expected you to predict that, when a Labour government was finally returned, things would continue to slide. And, yes, you did hear them right - "education, education, education". Excuse me, but what does the E stand for in FE?

So, my poor disillusioned friend, you stand accused of contributory negligence. You hung on in there during the bad years, hoping you could weather the storm and that, in the words of the New Labour anthem, "things could only get better". But the storm never abated, you're 22 years older, knackered, and as marketable as a Jeffrey Archer flag-day. You're stuck fast, old pal.

And, you've guessed it - I'm a fellow victim (24 years before the mast), and I'm writing this to myself as much as I am to you.

Malcolm Preston, Gwent

Look on the bright side

FE is manifestly under-funded, and those in it are under-valued. Why? Perhaps it's because FE was an easy target for the opportunist reformers and the new managerialism of the late 20th century. Put simply, those in FE were given a good kicking - they were kicked out of LEA control and converted to unaccountable "corporations". They were kicked out of their Silver Book contracts and many were simply kicked out of their jobs. Small wonder that morale has been an issue.

The supreme irony is that all these changes have transformed FE into a politician's dream - lean, fit, flexible and responsive to every crackpot initiative thrown at it. But it is still the poor relation. Just look at the pay dispute.

Are there compensations? Yes. Your students appreciate you. And your colleagues. They may be fewer, but the camaraderie is remarkable. Cheer up. A sing-song might help. So, after me - "always look on the bright side of (li)FE".

S Mazzotti, Worthing

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