Quick lesson - Learning first, business second

24th July 2009 at 01:00

I want to congratulate David Collins on his appointment as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, as reported in FE Focus on June 26, and I wish him well in his new post.

If he is to make a success of it, however, he will need to change the views he expressed in his book A Survival Guide for College Managers and Leaders. Why? Because the book has 10 chapters and not one of them is devoted to teaching and learning. There is no discussion of this topic and the word education is barely mentioned. The purposes of FE are also omitted.

Instead, the book is steeped in the jargon of management and business. So it discusses efficiency gains, value for money, marketing products, income targets for each subject, examining performance, more for less, and quality control.

The only reference in the whole book to educational literature is to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Again, why? Was the research literature thought to be irrelevant? Or is it unknown? All the gurus referred to in the book come from management and business. The education experts are conspicuous by their absence.

Let me quote briefly from David's book: "Teaching the students comes first. Believe it or not, there are people who would rather attend meetings than be in the classroom." Yes, David, and most of them are principals and members of senior management teams. If teaching comes first, why no discussion of the contemporary problems of professionals in the sector?

There are two fundamental assumptions behind the use of the management model in education, and they are both mistaken. The first is that the private firm offers the most appropriate model for all education (and public sector) organisations. But which firm? Woolworths? National Express?

David makes the comparison explicit: "If I was running the college as my own private company, how many of these posts would I need to fund?" How many posts would he fund if he was running the college as a centre for further education?

The second misguided assumption is that the main purpose of all education is to improve the UK's economic competitiveness. We need to challenge the self-defeating philistinism of this approach, which has reached its nadir in the incorporation of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills into Lord Mandelson's new empire, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. British industry and commerce want creative learners who can think for themselves, not "customers" who have been coached to pass exams by repeating what others think.

David's book isn't an anomaly or a deviation from the norm. It is typical and symptomatic of all that's gone wrong with FE, and education generally, since the 1980s. In the past 30 years, students have become customers, principals, chief executives, teachers, delivery agents, and knowledge has been reduced to a set of skills.

It is time to bring the language of education and research into education back centre stage where they belong. We need to create dedicated time and space for tutors to discuss pedagogy. Above all, we need our principals, not only to be astute business managers, but first and foremost educational experts who make learning the central organising theme in college and who take a lead by teaching.

Professor Coffield writes in a personal capacity.

Frank Coffield, Emeritus professor of education at London University's Institute of Education and visiting professor at the University of Sunderland.

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