Some of the most engaged, positive and proactive members of the further education and skills world recently attended an event hosted by TES a stone's throw from Westminster in order to piece together a #UKFEchat manifesto for FE.
Regardless of location or size of institution, many of us shared concerns and a similar wish list. But with limited time, it was agreed that a couple of subjects would be off the table.
First, we endeavoured not to fall down the "parity of esteem" rabbit hole. Equality in the perceived value of further and higher education hasn't been achieved since apprenticeship frameworks were conceived 500 years ago. As optimistic as we were, it seemed unlikely that we could launch a nationwide shift to a Germanic view of vocational learning as culturally and economically essential in one afternoon. We would need a full day for that.
Second, given the complex and seemingly ever-changing intricacies of FE funding, we decided to assume that we all, ultimately, wanted the same thing: appropriate funds in order to do our jobs. The lack of financial support is undoubtedly linked to the lack of esteem. It's difficult to forget business secretary Vince Cable's terrifying admission that a civil servant had advised him to remove even more money so as to "effectively kill off FE". Scarier still was the myopic belief that "nobody will really notice".
With these topics on hold, after much conversational thrashing out of ideas we finally formed five key priorities:
1 Information, advice and guidance
l We must create a consistent framework across schools and FE so that young people are aware of the options available to them and are supported in choosing the right progression pathway. This would necessitate a duty of collaboration between secondary schools and colleges.
2 English and maths
l Qualifications need to be fit for purpose, standardised and offer scope for vocational relevance.
l The functional skills qualification must be promoted better.
l We should rethink repeated resits of GCSE English and maths for those who do not achieve a grade A*-C.
l Those who have already achieved grades A*-C at GCSE should continue to study English and maths to the age of 18 in order to underpin vocational study and keep skills active.
l We need an assurance that Ofsted will deliver a reliable and valid assessment, with inspectors who are experienced in both the breadth and specificity of FE provision.
l We must make the curriculum relevant and responsive to local economic and employment needs by developing an obligation for medium and large employers to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with local FE providers.
l Ethical FE leadership should be supported to make the right decisions for the greater good of the local community.
4 Professional status and development
l Teacher qualifications must be standardised and there should be a requirement for every teacher in FE to be qualified or working towards this status.
l All teachers should receive CPD to improve their own English and maths skills.
l Ring-fenced time and clear developmental pathways are needed to ensure sustained dual professionalism, promoting practitioners' vocational expertise alongside pedagogy.
l Progress must be made with the proposals of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group report (bit.lyFeltagProgress), ensuring that practitioners are given suitable CPD to confidently integrate digital technology in a way that enhances teaching and learning.
l We need to establish stability in the FE sector, specifically in terms of the 14-19 curriculum, in work-based learning regulations, in teaching qualifications and in local industrial and governmental initiatives.
l Although changes to improve the system are welcomed, a well-planned and considered programme of implementation would allow practical transition with minimal disruption. Give broader policy changes time to work in practice.
We were as one in believing that the people with the power to direct change in the sector need to ask themselves regularly if they are doing the right thing. Are they being fair to those who choose FE, for whom it can be a life-changing or even life-saving opportunity?
Some 3 million people are educated and trained in colleges and many more across work-based learning and in the community. Are governmental decisions supporting equality of opportunity for everyone who aspires to improve their future and their family's future through FE? Or are they blocking that path?
We know that politicians visit colleges: photos of them being guided round engineering departments sporting yellow hard hats are not new. But we would have more confidence in ministers' decisions if we knew they'd invested time in really learning about all areas of the FE and skills sector - not just the powerhouses with robust PR departments but colleges large and small, private training providers and adult education in community settings. They may want to take a couple of civil servants with them. It's clear that some of them need an education.
This resilient sector still finds strength to rally in times of unparalleled difficulty. The challenges faced at every level can be overwhelming and the daily search for reinvention is exhausting, but we don't give up. We have hope.
Imagine what we could achieve if we were granted the resources to do our jobs properly by governmental decision-makers who did more than listen; who understood. We have hope for them, too.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons