Make the area reviews a truly democratic process

6th May 2016 at 00:00

The English FE system is in the process of major reorganisation, with college mergers planned or expected throughout the country.

The merger of Nottingham’s two FE colleges is set for completion before the start of the next academic year. In its response to the public consultation about this, Nottingham Campaign for Education (a group of parents and educators from schools and the further, adult and higher education sectors) highlights a crucial but frequently ignored issue: who should participate in developing the structure and curriculum for the emerging college?

Two points are central to our submission. First, we argue that the consultation isn’t a serious attempt to engage with the community about either the merger or the kind of FE needed in the local area. We question the purpose of consultation given that the decision to merge is a “done deal”; the values and mission of the proposed college are already set out in the document.

We say that this top-down approach typifies the way in which small groups decide on the education system that others – teachers, students and the wider community – work in or use. Our argument is a democratic one: alongside government and educational professionals, communities should be involved in deciding educational purposes and systems.

Second, we question the view that employers should drive the curriculum. Vocational education is central to what FE is about. Yet, given the uncertainties of technological and market change, the idea that the curriculum should be based around the predicted demands of the labour market is absurd.

More importantly, a curriculum determined by the wants of employers reflects a crude idea of FE. Individual and community development, cultural enrichment and democratic citizenship should all be integral to thinking about the education we need.

Expecting employers to be advocates of these wider purposes is implausible. Even on the narrow issue of workplace training, UK employers are often neglectful. The prevalence of low-wage, low-skill employment, with zero-hours contracts, shows that we are right to be wary of employers driving the curriculum.

Of course, these issues are not local. Our challenge to the Nottingham consultation is a challenge to the wider reorganisation of FE. The aim of the area reviews is clear: to streamline provision, cut the number of colleges, put employers in the curriculum driving seat and save money. Although they are independent, colleges are expected to toe the line.

The area reviews exemplify top-down decision-making. Review steering groups comprise college governors, FE commissioners, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and regional schools commissioners, aided by other key players – Ofsted, Jisc and the Education and Training Foundation. Where are the voices of local communities, teachers and students? How do their experiences, insights, expectations and hopes figure in the deliberations of the steering groups?

That FE colleges transform lives has become something of a platitude. Without the involvement of those whose lives are to be transformed and their educators, colleges emerging from the reviews will not be transformative but will merely transmit top-down policy geared to the wants of employers.

The argument that a democratic society needs a democratic education system has deep historical roots. How this aspiration is structured is a matter for debate. But first, we need to shout loudly that education is an issue of democratic, community concern.

Dr Rob Peutrell is an Esol and learning support tutor. He is on the management council of the National Association for Teaching English and Other Community Languages to Adults, and is a founder member of Tutor Voices

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