This month, a requirement for most new FE teachers in England to be fully-trained comes into force. All new full-time teachers must now complete an approved award within two years and those with a substantial part-time load must complete it within four years. Existing college staff will not be required to gain teaching qualifications in the same way as new appointees, but most colleges are expected to insist that they do.
There is a lack of clarity about the position of part-timers, who may teach as little as two hours a week, and agency staff. There are also now some anomalies in the UK, since Scottish FE teachers are not yet required to train and the National Assembly for Wales has yet to indicate whether it intends to follow England's example.
Despite these uncertainties, the requirement represents an important professional gain, especially alongside the introduction of bursary payments to full-time students on initial teacher training programmes for FE. And, from September, payments will be made to all prospective FE teachers, including those with vocational qualifications rather than degrees.
The clear message is now that training matters. The boundaries of this diverse, beleaguered and fragmented professional group are starting to be drawn at last.
It seems quite extraordinary that it could have taken so long. Systematic training for technical and vocational teachers was first recommended as long ago as 1944. Why should it have been so much more difficult to achieve than it was for school teachers? One reason given at that time (and again since) was that any requirement for FE teachers to undertake training would cost too much and would harm recruitment. Colleges needed then (as now) a good supply of teachers direct from industry and commerce. Those staff, in turn, tended to see themselves first and foremost as engineers, designers or surveyors, rather than as teachers. The new requirement to train raises the profile of teaching itself and will undoubtedly help to raise the status of the profession as a whole.
In this context, the emergence of a new professional body for FE is also important. Schoolteachers already have their own professional body in the UK, as do university lecturers. So, to many involved in further education, the proposal for a new Institute for Learning (FE), which is due to be established this year, seems a positive step. It is significant, of course, that the Government itself has initiated the setting-up of these professional bodies for teachers and it raises questions about the existing status of all teachers, and about whether they will get the kinds of professional bodies they want.
The proposal for membership of the new FE body is that it should eventually be open to all those who support and manage learning in the post-16 phase. Since it may include those who do not teach and are not qualified to teach, it will do little to enhance the FE teacher's status. Its membership will be too broad and its interests too diverse.
Another complication is, of course, the emergence of the learning and skills sector that now subsumes further education. Though it may be welcomed for other reasons, it is too soon to judge its impact on the status of FE teachers. It may well make cohesion harder to achieve and it may do so just at a time when professional boundaries are starting to clarify and entry routes to the profession are at last becoming approved and formalised.
After long years of official neglect, the past decade has seen some major policy shifts relating to FE. For many staff in colleges, things have changed dramatically. Some of the changes are good and will help to improve the standing and confidence of the professional group. The impact of other changes on their status and cohesion has yet to be assessed.
Jocelyn Robson is a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey School of Educational Studies