Professional boundaries must be held

15th February 2008 at 00:00

The independence of colleges is threatened by government policies, which should not be accepted uncritically, says Graham Fowler.

Education's independence, like that of the judiciary, is precious. Yet FE's independence is being threatened from many directions by current Government proposals.

In the past couple of weeks, FE Focus reported three symptomatic developments: the arrival of so-called McQualifications (February 1), the search for entrepreneurial bosses from industry to run colleges (February 8), and the value of colleges having particular links to industry (February 8).

Improving links with local business is a desirable goal for colleges. Such links do not need the interference of a centralising government.

The concern emerges when Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert emphasises "best" colleges relate classroom learning to the workplace. At times, this may work. However, such a generalised reading across from industrial need to education will fail even the short-term needs of students, their employers and the nation.

Education needs to provide courses linked to employer requirements but coupled with personal development and a broader vision of students' possibilities. A broader vision works better for the short-term and is immeasurably sounder for the longer term. Educational boundaries enable such a rounded response. They are defended not because they are good for practitioners but because they are good for all.

By taking the capacity to award qualifications outside the sphere of educational institutions, they will inevitably become denuded and reduced to meeting current needs of employers.

The idea that anyone, regardless of prior involvement with education, can run a college is another attack on FE's independence. If we want education to be of value, then we need to ensure those running it are versed in educational values. Otherwise they may well follow the course government charts unthinkingly and uncritically.

These developments run counter to education retaining control of its own activities. Many commentators - some radical, some less so - refer to this control as education's relative autonomy. Clearly this does not mean complete freedom.

Education cannot simply ignore imposition of state bureaucracy or requests to focus on particular needs. However, neither should education simply do what industry wishes, as the final report of the Leitch Revie of Skills, published in December 2006, leads one to believe. For all that the state might wish to incorporate those requirements and feed them through to the education system, such requests are subject to negotiation.

This relative autonomy makes education distinctive. Basil Bernstein, the British sociologist, gave the example of the way woodwork in education - with the classroom setting and the requirements of the external examination body - is different from carpentry at work.

You will have heard a version of this from students. They talk about the difference between the way they are taught to do things and the way they are expected to do them - perhaps cutting corners but still passable - in the workplace.

Education's distinctiveness means we are able to focus on the needs of the student, even in instrumental times. Clearly, though, the emphasis on personal development is more difficult in a context where the Government is emphasising economic value and utility.

So these developments emerge in a context of a long-running battle.

First, the arguments of the New Right, in particular the attack on professions, which is still felt across the public sector as bureaucracy abounds, performance is tested and league tables produced.

Second, New Labour retained many policies with a greater tendency to control from the centre.

Third, New Labour has developed a marked emphasis on the knowledge economy. Yet the arguments for it are far from obvious. Low-skilled jobs abound. Even in high technology companies there are many jobs for cooks and cleaners. And if there are more high-skilled jobs, there are many more graduates to fill them; one consequence is that employers increase requirements needed to make the shortlist, let alone be appointed.

Fourth, the emphasis on the knowledge economy is rooted in the maniacal misunderstandings following the embracing of business by New Labour. After all, not all countries have such a one-clubbed approach to meeting the needs of capitalism. Other European countries respond to global competition in ways that give a more significant space for workers and encourage negotiation between workers and business.

In defending educational boundaries, we resist the idea that government pronouncements should be accepted uncritically just because they are repeated. And we offer a more credible alternative shape for education. This is not surprising. After all, when it comes to education, we are the professionals.

Graham Fowler is a writer, researcher and consultant in FE.

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