FEfocus Editorial - Anger is less about fees than feelings

11th February 2011 at 00:00

It is not really about pound;68 - that is one early conclusion to draw from the first, hostile reaction to the Institute for Learning's fee announcement (page 1). A bill of pound;1.30 a week will not even deprive the hard-pressed lecturer of two-thirds of a cup of over-priced milk and burnt coffee at a leading multinational chain of cafes.

However, the case for asking FE teachers to pay any amount just to do their job is badly damaged by the decision to abolish the schoolteachers' equivalent of IfL, the General Teaching Council. Though motivated by the same desire to take quangos off the Government payroll, the decision to scrap one and turn the other into a privatised tax collector lacks any coherence.

It is downright weird for FE to be hit by the full force of modern HR- driven professionalism while schools are opened up to any passing tweed- clad gentleman amateur, since the Government's new free schools will not even require staff to qualify (why exactly should they have greater rights than independent college corporations?).

The decision is even harder to understand when the Government's political agenda in education centres around the teaching quality in schools - rightly or wrongly, its diagnosis is that poor teachers are failing to instil the three Rs and the names of kings and queens. It offers no such critique of FE teaching, perhaps because its range of provision is harder to compare to fond memories of Eton.

But the suspicion is that what provokes mutinous feelings in lecturers over the fee is that it is an imposition on a profession which does not feel valued. Professional bodies and fees are the moats and drawbridges around elite workers keen to protect their privileged status - not least because the harder it is to get in, the more they can charge for their services. But you need to have the privileged status first.

Instead, lecturers feel their status, pay and conditions are being eroded in a continuous effort to extract more productivity and drive down costs within an education system where their professional labour is the main expense.

For doctors, lawyers and accountants, professional fees are well established and accepted. Nurses have undergone a similar process of increasing professionalisation in recent years and saw the Nursing and Midwifery Council introduced in 2001. But the life-or-death nature of healthcare has meant registration has been a concern since the 19th century, and we have examples like that of Beverley Allitt, who attacked 13 children and killed four while working on a children's ward, to keep the dangers in mind.

IfL, by contrast, has only dealt with a handful of relatively trivial disciplinary cases, which raises the question of whether a register and code of conduct is even necessary: the case has yet to be made that the occasional lecturer in a drunken fight requires a multi-million pound organisation's attention. Among schoolteachers, where reported breaches of conduct are far more prevalent, a slimmed-down disciplinary system is thought to suffice.

Everything else should be voluntary. If IfL cannot sell teachers of all people on the value of continuing to learn through professional development, then both teachers and IfL should pack it all in and go home. Our learned FE minister John Hayes surely knows his Plato: "Knowledge acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." It applies to teachers, too.

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