Raising the standard for professional status

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
In a recent article in FE Focus Tom Bewick, who was part of the government policy team that set up sector skills councils (SSCs), said that "people who previously ran second-rate national training organisations (NTOs)", whose mindset was to "screw as much public cash as possible out of the Treasury", are now setting up SSCs which will "shape training in each industrial sector".

In the context it was a blessing that further education wasn't mentioned.

But, then, FE never is when it comes to SSCs.

It is salutary to remember that NTOs, like SSCs, were employer-led organisations. It seems that the Government is placing the same faith in the "business community" that has characterised education and training since the late 1970s which, along with employer-led technical education councils (TECs), was judged by the Government to be a failure.

It seems clear from all recent documents that the Government is determined to set up SSCs. Perhaps this explains why the lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of Colleges are resigned to it even though they privately express grave reservations.

I want to argue that teachers in FE should not be a part of the SSC framework because the whole strategy is based on an industrial and business model. FE teachers should be firmly located in a professional framework.

The proposed Lifelong Learning Council that subsumes Fento will, according to the Department for Education and Skills, take strategic control of workforce planning and development for the lifelong learning sector and "meet the workforce needs of employers in all other sectors" (a quango of all quangos?).

Nothing is said about the professional needs of FE teachers. The formation of the lifelong learning council is far from a foregone conclusion anyway and there are major hurdles to overcome, with many tensions and conflicts of interest.

Fento, by far the most influential NTO, will occupy only five of the 17 seats on the shadow board. Will the other old NTOs on the new lifelong learning council be content to be driven by the needs of the FE college sector? I doubt it.

Anyway, as far as I know, no other profession has SSCs. Schoolteachers and university lecturers have the General Teaching Council and the Institute of Learning and Teaching (soon to become the Academy). Why is it that teachers in FE colleges are singled out to require an employer-led body to set professional standards and verify qualifications? Why should FE-college teacher qualifications alone be led by leading figures from the "business community"?

In fact, I would suggest that recent policies, such as the introduction of national standards and compulsory teacher education, have been nudging FE college teachers towards a professional framework and away from an industrial model.

Furthermore, the recent Ofsted survey on teacher education for FE made serious criticisms, suggesting a fundamental shake-up. This could include: minimum key qualifications; subject focus initial training and professional development; planned work-based subject support and proper mentoring for teachers in colleges; a proper professional development framework with initial training as the first step; the introduction of a probationary period; and a form of FE qualified teacher status.

Hands up all those who think an employer-led lifelong learning sector skills council (concerned with meeting the employer needs of all other sectors) is the best way to achieve these necessary advances? Maybe we should do as the Ofsted survey report suggests and look to the school-based route to learn lessons.

Is it possible that we can learn from the Teacher Training Agency standards and have a professional body like the GTC that could give FE teachers a professional status?

It should be possible to form sub-committees of these existing bodies that could address the specific concerns of FE. There is a legitimate fear in FE colleges that working with the TTA and GTC would mean domination by school concerns. Surely that does not have to be so if FE and its representatives fight their corner. It is easy to show how FE is different from other education sectors.

There has been a real advance and Fento has done its bit; let's not allow it to run into the sands of an ill-defined lifelong learning council, which in any case is inappropriate for the professional status of FE teachers who need to be treated on a par with other professions.

Oh yes, one other thing. Entering into a professional framework will not only raise the standards and standing of FE college teachers, it may also be an effective way of achieving the justified claims for parity of pay with school-teachers.

Norman Lucas is director of post-compulsory teacher education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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