Norman Crowther: Strong narrative can unleash further education's power

14th August 2009 at 01:00

Original paper headline: Strong narrative can unleash FE's power

That the further education sector is being asked to up-skill the general workforce as well as its own workforce is a tall order. But is the sector well formed for such a task?

The sector is acknowledged as taking up a "school leaver deficit" of those who cannot follow an academic route and those who have been disengaged with mainstream teaching. It is also seen as a supplement to employer provision of training and improving adult levels of education (now called skills).

But the issues that surround the sector are not just about academic versus vocational: they are about the modus operandi of the sector, particularly since the false dawn of incorporation. In following Mammon, FE colleges have become large, bloated animals with a single appetite: funding.

Nevertheless, FE continues to try to provide the supplement to educational failure and market failure, for it has a memory of a community of learning. It retains that narrative in its range of courses, and it retains it in the enthusiasm and expertise of the workforce. But this memory is being eroded.

Lacking well-formed relations to government departments, and dependent upon an overly complex set of funding sources, colleges are primarily becoming "skills warehouses" that are also indulged as providing 14-16 work and HE work (always under FE conditions and exploiting the workforce in each case).

The sector lacks well-formed national agreements (variation in pay and conditions between colleges borders on the ludicrous) and so lacks a well- formed workforce, the majority of whom are on poorer pay and conditions than their school teacher colleagues.

There is no well-formed view of FE's purpose. Self-regulation is seemingly about delivering government targets, not really a call for an autonomous and "maturing" sector as is claimed. Dare we raise questions about pedagogy, about the curriculum befitting a 21st-century educational, training and skills sector, about occupational status and rewards? Isn't self-regulation about self-ownership as well?

There are many working in the sector at all levels who are seeking to do the right thing, but it appears that a thorough understanding of how the FE sector has emerged and how it might develop as an established autonomous sector has not yet been written into a forceful enough narrative.

The sector is struggling to come to terms with what it is, but as long as the answers revolve around funding and corporate assumptions, they ignore the wish of all stakeholders to take part; to provide a fully rounded view of education, training and skills appropriate to the sector. If these assumptions continue to be the case, the sector will never be capable of delivering the appropriate skills at the appropriate levels to all.

It is time governance issues were settled for the sector as a whole and the stated tensions resolved. If not dealt with, the consequence will be more years of indigestion.

  • Norman Crowther, National official (post-16 education), Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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