Fighting talk

17th July 2015 at 01:00

I am a warrior. I will protect, defend and fight for those I love. I once climbed a tree carrying six stones of collie when angrily surrounded by a herd of fellow protective mothers, defending their calves from the idiot (and her dog) who hadn't clocked the "Do not enter" sign in a field full of cows.

I've spent years protecting, defending and fighting for the FE sector but I'm beginning to wonder if I'm flogging a dead horse.

I went to the Northern Rocks education conference recently. It was a brilliant day of learning, debating and celebrating teaching. A few of us FE teachers were there but it was predominantly people from schools. I got an amazing lift from spending time with engaged and excited professionals, but another emotion was lurking underneath: jealousy. I was jealous of the school sector's stability.

I know that there is turbulence in every area of education, I know that schools are tightening their belts just like the rest of us and that teachers face all sorts of pressures. But no one is saying that the school sector's days are numbered. No one is slashing school budgets to the point of extinction. That would be crazy.

But that's exactly what is happening to us. The sector is so fragile it could buckle with a hard sneeze. For all the talk of a Big Society where we take responsibility for ourselves and our neighbours, the opportunity for millions of adults to do so by accessing education has been removed. The myopic understanding of adult education by those who have all but destroyed it makes me weep.

So that's one part of the FE and skills sector gasping for breath. What next?

There's been more worried-face talk about the future of FE colleges in recent weeks. Whatevs. Cries of "we're doomed" are as old as God's dog. However, when the skills minister is questioning whether the "FE model is one that we want", it's time to get your coat.

Of course, apprenticeships are touted as the post-16 cure-all. Before the general election, every party was flinging increasingly high numbers of promised apprenticeships at each other like playground bragging. By the end, I was expecting "infinity plus one" to be the official figure.

Apprenticeships can be the perfect blend of real-life training and education for many, but not for all. I can't help wondering if their popularity in Westminster is partially a result of politicians knowing what apprenticeships actually are. The function of the skills sector as a whole is more complex to articulate.

By the time you read this, I'll no doubt have returned to my default setting of "loudly optimistic". But as I write, I am angry at the injustice of it all. And I am frightened. Frightened for the millions of learners who will be chucked on life's scrapheap. For the adults for whom education can mean the difference between a fight for existence and a life to be embraced. And for the staff, as redundancies drop like bombs around us.

As this attack on the sector I love continues, my fight-or-flight response has been pushed to its limits. And I am getting tired of fighting.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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