Just three years after compulsory qualifications for further education staff were first introduced in 2001, they lay in tatters after a heavily critical Ofsted report on initial teacher training and a rapidly produced strategy for reform.
Now, nearly three years after the latest change to the qualification regime, no one has reached for the nuclear button - yet. Many providers are still struggling to understand the new qualifications, but there is evidence that they are working well for some lecturers and raising standards of teaching.
But how far can they deliver what Ofsted says is FE teachers' greatest hope: more comparability between their status and colleagues in schools?
The three new qualifications, introduced in 2007, were a result of the reform strategy drawn up three years earlier after inspectors said teacher training in FE was failing to deal with the diversity of the sector, to incorporate subject specialism and to allow trainees to reach their full potential.
New entrants are expected to begin with Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector as a new minimum requirement. They can then choose to follow the certificate to become associate teachers or the diploma to become fully qualified.
Abbreviated as PTLLS, CTLLS and DTLLS, they have become colloquially known as "petals, kettles and" - here the phrase comes unstuck - "dettles".
With such an alphabet soup of qualifications, it is hardly surprising that there has been some initial confusion.
Sheran Johnson is head of the teaching development centre at Newcastle College and director of the centre for excellence in teacher training in the North of England.
She says: "When it initially started in 2007, there was a great deal of confusion. We did a lot of work on information, advice and guidance, we worked with HR so they and senior managers understood the qualifications and the recruitment needs. I think it's there now."
A key factor was undertaking an audit of staff's prior qualifications - "a massive exercise". Earlier this year inspectors said many colleges were still confused about how far their staff's experience and qualifications counted under the new requirements.
It is a point borne out by staff on the FE Focus forums. Some report positive experiences, but many say they struggle to get good advice, with their colleges sometimes offering incorrect information about the qualifications they need (see panel, below left).
Work-based learning, where the regulations did not come in until 2008, is perhaps further behind. "There was a bit of denial going on for a while," Ms Johnson says.
Some work-based learning providers have adapted well, however. JHP Training uses real-time classes over the internet, repeated three times a day, so staff working flexible hours can train when it suits them from the comfort of home.
Elaine Reddy, manager at the JHP Academy, says: "We're in the workplace learning sector, and the way we work is we go out to the learners in work and we deliver learning there for them.
"So we've set ourselves up to provide the training that they require in an innovative fashion. And we think we've done it."
Figures from Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK) show that the numbers of full- time staff earning qualifications in 2007 rose by the largest amount since regulations were introduced, suggesting the new qualifications regime may have had some impact. However, the rise in part-timers getting qualified was less than previous years.
As of 200809, the latest year with published figures, 92.4 per cent of full-timers and 90.7 per cent of part-timers were qualified or enrolled, which includes a number of teachers working prior to 2001 who are exempt from the requirements.
Ms Johnson says the strength of the new qualifications was that they allowed teacher trainers to take a fresh look at how they worked with trainees and encouraged a less theoretical approach.
"I felt they were a breath of fresh air, from the point of view of the learner and the staff," she says. "We had the opportunity to rewrite what we were doing. The qualification is for teaching, not talking about how to teach.
"Now they are far more practical, or the way we push them is. They can see how it relates to students immediately. They are told: `Put it into practice and reflect on that.'"
Such an approach is particularly well-suited to people switching from industry into vocational teaching, compared to the graduate-only route of the PGCE in FE. Newcastle College has seen more people preparing for teaching as a second career, and getting the qualification under their belt earlier, even in traditional shortage subjects such as construction. The recession has also driven the trend, of course.
Ms Johnson adds: "It's attractive for people pre-service, thinking about stepping into teaching but not sure yet, and people from less academic backgrounds. They prefer to go step by step, with teaching and support. What it is particularly good at is building confidence. We are now seeing people move onto BAs and MAs. It's like a renewed interest in their professionalism."
Ms Johnson also sees signs that it is achieving one long-term aim: to foster a sense of FE as a profession which lecturers belong to in addition to their long-standing industry expertise.
"There's always been a detachment between, `I'm a dancer, I'm an actor' - belonging to that profession instead of them being a teacher," she says. "It used to be quite difficult to get across that message of dual professionalism."
The Skills Commission, which brings together MPs and FE practitioners, argues that the reforms do not go far enough. While FE lecturers have said comparability with schoolteachers is their biggest hope, it has called for a single universal qualification as the best solution to an increasing overlap at 14-19, a long overdue boost to the status of vocational staff, and a way of eliminating the need for separate training and professional bodies.
Ms Johnson, who trained as a secondary teacher in the 1980s, says that is a realistic aim, comparing it to medical training that involves a common core of learning with options for specialisation.
"I'm not sure you need a whole PGCE year on how to teach French," she says. "I'd be surprised if there was more than 25 per cent that was subject specific.
"But you need someone who can take the best from both, so it's not just the Training and Development Agency for Schools taking it forward rather than LLUK."
The emphasis on walling off schoolteaching to those with 2:1 degrees would make such a move against the political grain anyway. But whether we get an easily understood, universal system that provides teachers who can work across an increasingly interconnected 14-19 system may depend ultimately on whether schools think they can learn anything from FE.
Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), urges caution about merging qualifications. "We need to make sure this provision is outstanding before we look at whether we should think about combining them," she says. "I'm looking at this as a five- to seven-year programme of reforms."
FE FOCUS FORUMS
`DTLLS? I wish I'd done a PGCE in the first place'
I began the DTLLS course in September 2008 on the same day I began teaching, and I must admit that it is a daunting task, but it is not one to be scared of. I am a bricklayer with a few qualifications, and I have just received an Outstanding Learners Award in Bexley Borough for my DTLLS coursework.
I did a DTLLS. Sadly, it is not recognised in the secondary sector. Whereas a PGCE is recognised in colleges, sixth forms and secondary schools, nobody seems to know too much about DTLLS. As the FE funding pot has dried up, and there are lots of redundancies, I wish I had done a PGCE in the first place.
It's all a job creation scheme for the bureaucrats. Thank goodness I got my Cert Ed and have taught in FE since the 1990s.
I loved DTLLS, but as Hampshire County Council just couldn't recognise it (hence no funding) I left after a year to do the PGCE. I had a fab tutor on DTLLS with really innovative teaching and support with the assignments. One thing I would recommend is not to do it where you teach - find another college and you learn what other college processes are as well as getting the qualification.
I completed my PTLLS last month - it started off a little strangely as I thought it would be really hard because out of 15 members in our class, only three of us had no teaching experience. But if your teacher is good you will get constructive feedback, and any corrections you need to make to your assignments you have time to do. I had a few assignments referred back to me before I got the hang of it. Press the teacher if they don't go far enough when explaining what you have to do, as you learn on the PTLLS it is the teacher's job to reach the students by any means.
The classic stupidity of present-day FE: where there should be clarity there is chaos. This constant paper-chase and form-filling is a madness. The old system wasn't broken and it didn't need "fixing". You do your degree and then you do your PGCE FE. But no! It can't be left alone. The fact that here in 2010 people are still having to ask about the process shows the IfL has failed. Understanding them is an exercise in Lifelong Learning.