Please spare us the new ethics

8th September 2006 at 01:00
P eople are fond of labelling years but not many of them relate to further education. The European year of lifelong learning, back in 1996, was the last and is almost forgotten now.

As 2007 is going to be a special year for FE, we should label it, by way of warning, the year of the new professionalism. New, of course, in its modern political usage often means "not" rather than an innovative form of something. Think of New Labour, new politics, new old, new man, new library, new literacy or almost anything the think-tank Demos labels "new".

The first thing we can say about the new professionalism in FE, then, is that it is not professionalism.

In his book on teacher-training in FE, Norman Lucas refers to the legacy of the dinosaurs who, at least until the late 1980s, saw themselves as subject or vocational specialists who just happened to be teaching.

Despite the selective reports of how bad their teaching was, it is hard not to think they were essentially right. In this prehistoric time, professionalism, or just being a worker in FE, meant that you had knowledge and skills and that was that.

Sometimes there was the additional claim that a professional must have special ethics, but all this meant was the lecturers stuck to the epistemological values relevant to education. For example, being committed to the pursuit of knowledge implies that you try to be honest, consistent and do not contradict yourself.

This prehistoric professionalism is what "Not Labour" has consciously tried to do away with. Estelle Morris, when she was Secretary of State, was blunt about it, declaring: "Gone are the days when doctors and teachers could say, with a straight face, 'Trust me, I'm a professional'."

She ended with a call for a wide consultation about what professionalism could mean in the modern era. This is not because the use of the term is now almost equivalent to employment or how you spend your time, as in the "criminal profession", which is often used without its original irony.

Morris expressed genuine confusion. Once trust is scathingly rejected and, along with it, the autonomy to get on with teaching in the classroom and lecture theatre as you see fit, then you do have to ask what professionalism means. It has been emptied of content. The latest in a line of consultations is about the professionalisation of FE.

The usual respondents have responded positively. You can see why. After the deprofessionalisation of FE, the continual under-funding and low pay, to be offered the status of a profession seems a step forward.

A minor worry is that professionalisation will be done in a hurry. It took 10 years to create a new professionalism for compulsory schooling, but the same process looks like happening in two or three in FE.

This acceleration will quickly change the nature of the sector. The real problem is that it is a forced professionalisation. The Government is going to tell lecturers what the concept means by setting "standards" for them to meet.

And it does not matter what these are. The fact that they are set by the Government or a quango means that they constitute the opposite of professionalism.

As always, it is the seemingly ethical elements that will encourage many lecturers to support the idea. Here is one example. The Institute for Learning, which will be gatekeeper to the new profession, carries on its website a derivative discussion of the five essential ethics of a profession.

These are: truth disclosure, subjectivity, reflective integrity, humility, and humanism. Apart from the banal first point, which is an instruction to tell the truth, all these ethics are disguised attacks on objective knowledge. They tell us that knowledge is subjective, relative and fallible.

Finally, these ethics recognise that, as we cannot know or assert anything, we must put the student in the driving seat.

If all knowledge is fallible, lecturers can offer nothing but support, and the students really are on their own.

This is a dispiriting and isolating idea of FE dressed up as something open-minded and humanistic. Adopting this sloppy relativism is just one way in which the position of the dinosaurs will be entirely reversed during the year of the new professionalism.

Subject specialism will become almost accidental to being a teacher. The Institute forLearning calls for a dual professionalism, which recognises subject specialism and teaching, but if it adopts this derivative code of ethics it must undermine subject specialism.

The choice lecturers will face in 2007 is between being a new and anxious FE tutor, who cannot assume to know more than the students, or a "boring"

dinosaur who knows a thing or two.

The FE Dinosaurs - a good club to belong to.

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning development at Canterbury Christchurch University

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