Forgo the quest for parity in favour of collaboration
Achieving widespread parity of esteem between vocational and academic education will not happen. The sector has thrown itself at this problem since vocational education was invented, and, frankly, we were doing better in our quest 500 years ago than we are now.
So instead of spending any more time and effort on this redundant battle, why don’t we start asking ourselves if parity of esteem is what we actually want? Is wider recognition of where we fit into the world of education what we’re really after? Or a greater value assigned to our function? This would make more sense than aspirations of equality with academia when we serve a different, more varied purpose. Apples and oranges…
If we accept that further education is seen by many as inferior and get upset about it, we validate the views of those who assign social and cultural value to learning. What if instead, we stop trying to prove ourselves worthy and simply tell those who disparage us that they are wrong? That we reject their ignorance.
The result of learning – the skills and knowledge acquired – is admittedly hierarchical, but that hierarchy shifts based on circumstance. If I need a better understanding of how foreign aid affects the UK economy, I’m best off asking someone with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. If I have water pouring through my ceiling, calling someone who has a level 3 NVQ in domestic plumbing and heating would be the best option. How I value other people’s education and training depends entirely on their expertise in relation to my need.
Linking education to social standing is utterly ridiculous in a market where a first-class degree is no longer a ticket to a job. Surely the recognition that an individual’s learning allows them to make a valuable contribution to society is far more important than any quibbles over where that learning took place.
There are practical implications to spreading the word on the function and value of FE: it allows us to offer a young person the progression route that fits them best, that will serve their interests, talents and ambitions. It ensures that young people, parents and teachers know that FE is an option.
While some of the ignorance surrounding FE is based on elitism, it can also be as simple as a lack of information without any value judgement attached. I’ve chatted on Twitter with a number of secondary teachers who, despite being engaged members of the education community, still have next to no idea about what actually goes on at that huge college building in their town.
Historically, there have been issues ensuring that good-quality, independent advice is in place in all schools. Although there are many schools that make an effort to actively collaborate with colleges, some (often with their own sixth-form attached) go to great lengths to prevent the local college being offered as an option. This hostility often seems to be at a strategic level rather than an operational one.
When the notion of corporate competition is removed and it’s just teachers chatting with each other, collaboration can easily flourish. A maths lecturer at a college in the North of England recently told me how she had set up a maths club with the intention of inviting teachers from local secondaries to join forces and talk shop. When her institution contacted school offices, there were few positive replies, but when she took the time to personally send email invitations to teachers, asking them to spread the word, involvement grew and the event was a great success.
“It’s about teachers talking to teachers, not corporations talking to corporations,” she says. “The teachers didn’t care that the club was instigated by an FE lecturer – they cared that they were talking to another teacher about their subject.” So what can we do to tear down this unhelpful divide?
There may be greater links between primary and secondary education, but dropping the idea of age groups and educational settings as the criteria for CPD collaboration – focusing instead on subject-specific expertise – could encourage cross-sector relationships to build. Sharing good practice and exchanging ideas, whether the subject is taught in school, FE or HE, provides opportunities for learning without boundaries and quashes the culture of educational segregation.
In addition to the various online projects that unite teachers and learners from all areas of education, there are a number of successful initiatives for crowdsourcing knowledge and resources. Deborah Millar, head of e-learning at Blackburn College, created Learning Wheel, a visual resource that began as a way to add meaning to the range of digital tools on offer that enhance teaching and learning. Its reach has expanded to include subject-specific contextualised wheels, where educators and industry specialists from around the world can add to the knowledge bank via Twitter and Google Docs.
There are national organisations for most subjects and vocations, whose aim is to unite educators and provide an environment for supportive discussion. A third-party organising a knowledge-based joint venture could eliminate feelings of them and us; uniting by subject redefines what we mean by “us”.
Joint learning projects
Seek out opportunities for teachers in FE and schools to work together to develop projects for the benefit of all learners. Jayne Stigger, an interim FE manager and consultant, has worked on initiatives including students curating a science fair in a local school, A-level students in FE mentoring GCSE students in schools and a “CSI Day”.
“Lots of departments got involved in CSI Day,” she explains. “Media produced the film of a murder, drama did the acting, law gave legal advice and the science department got heavily involved. The school students had to solve the murder based on what they had learned from their day crime scene investigating with the college.” A pleasing byproduct of the event was a significant increase in the college’s recruitment the following year.
Initiatives that enable schools and colleges to work better together are proving highly successful when they’re led from the ground up. However, such projects take time and effort, which requires support from senior management to be sustained. But by encouraging teaching staff to lead a new style of educational unity – by showing our colleagues throughout the education sector the value of what we do in FE – there could come a point where we no longer have to tell them.
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