New AoC president talks tough on IfL's battle to regain respect
The Institute for Learning has "a way to go" to win the respect of FE lecturers, the new president of the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned.
In her first interview since taking up the role, Bridgwater College principal Fiona McMillan said that after University and College Union members in FE institutions voted in July to boycott the professional body for lecturers, the onus was on the Institute for Learning (IfL) to "demonstrate its value" to members.
Mrs McMillan, who will split her time between her new AoC job and Bridgwater until she retires from the Somerset college in March, called on the IfL to address concerns raised by members.
"The IfL is there as a body to support the workforce," she said. "At the end of the day, it has a responsibility to demonstrate its value, and clearly it will win its support on the basis of that.
"We need the IfL to become the body that our staff really value. There's obviously a way to go to ensure that. Getting sector recognition is an important issue for them. I am aware that my colleagues at the AoC are engaged with that. The IfL, as a body, needs to engage and look carefully at the issues that are raised and deal with them."
IfL chief executive Toni Fazaeli responded by saying she welcomed Mrs McMillan's election and that the IfL was looking forward to working in partnership to promote the professional interests of teachers in the sector.
Mrs McMillan also welcomed the "significant opportunities" for colleges to expand and enhance their provision in light of recent developments in the education sector, including the opening up of the higher education market, with the first colleges gaining foundation degree-awarding powers, and the Government's academies programme.
Bridgwater College is currently in talks with a local school about creating an academy trust to provide all-through education, from infant stage to post-16 level.
Mrs McMillan also spoke of her desire to see colleges cement their role at the heart of communities.
As principal of a college which is equally renowned for its academic and vocational provision, Mrs McMillan is a staunch advocate of the tertiary system.
"I have a real insight into the benefits of the tertiary structure. You have high-flyers alongside people whose academic experience has not been successful," she said.
"To have these people side by side, in the same place, is really beneficial. We are bringing students up in a college which offers something for everybody. Around 95 per cent of students in Bridgwater schools come to us post-16, and our success rates are fantastic."
The philosophy that vocational qualifications deserve an equal status with the academic, frequently espoused by skills minister John Hayes and reiterated in Professor Alison Wolf's review of 14-19 vocational education, underpins the new AoC president's attitude to education.
"We need to get away from this concept that one route is the good route and anything else is second rate," she said.
"In FE, we can turn students who have been turned off education into highly enthused individuals. But it's important that, at my college, they are friends with people studying the International Baccalaureate or people who have a profile of GCSEs at straight As and want to go to Oxbridge. We don't want to pigeonhole anyone.
"In a way, it isn't difficult. You have to structure the college to allow that to happen, to soften the boundaries between the two types of students."
After more than 30 years working in FE institutions, it is their power to transform people's lives which has shaped Mrs McMillan's outlook. "I love it," she said. "I think FE is the most fantastic sector."
After several years teaching in secondary schools, in 1978 she decided to change her career path. Alongside a part-time job teaching at Weymouth Technical College, she took on the daunting task of leading classes in basic skills, history and general studies in the category B Dorchester Prison.
While there was little scope for high-level academic success, the experience galvanised her passion for making a difference through education.
"It was a real opportunity. It made me realise there are all sorts of people who have potential, but, for all sorts of reasons, things go wrong," she said.
"To facilitate change is a wonderful thing. You can feel what education can do, how people's lives can go awry and how you can then help them find a positive way of living.
"We have a responsibility to this generation; we can equip them to cope with what they will face in the future."
1963-70: St Anne's College Grammar School, Surrey
1971-74: BA (Hons) in English at North London Polytechnic
1974: Secondary PGCE in English at the Institute of Education, London University
1978-80: MA in English literature at Exeter University
1975-78: English teacher
1978-80: Part-time teacher at both Dorchester Prison and Weymouth Technical College
1980-83: Lecturer at Bournemouth and Poole College of FE
1983-87: Lecturer at Neath Tertiary College, South Wales
1987-88: Senior lecturer and staff development manager at Pontypool Tertiary College, South Wales
1988-92: Senior manager and vice-principal at South Bristol College
1992-present: Vice-principal, deputy principal and principal at Bridgwater College, Somerset.