Stressed, tired, skint: my two years in FE

18th December 2015 at 00:00
How money and time constraints reflect the harsh reality of FE teaching

A long-held dream of mine was to become an FE lecturer. In 2012, I was able to fulfil that dream after leaving my job as a journalist at a national newspaper and investing £7,000 of my redundancy pay to train for a PGCE in post-compulsory education. Now, as I look back at my short-lived teaching career, I wonder where it went wrong and why, after two years, I’ve decided that the classroom isn’t for me.

We know that there’s a recruitment crisis in schools, but what about in FE? Am I the only person who has hung up their whiteboard marker before ever really getting to grips with the whiteboard itself? I know for a fact that I’m not, as I’ve seen other colleagues leave.

James Noble-Rogers, the executive director of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), does not think that the situation facing the sector constitutes a crisis.

“I’ve certainly not picked up on one,” he says. “However, in FE no one sets targets and no one collects data. It’s a deregulated system, so no one needs to be qualified to teach in the sector.”

What we do know is that there is a problem finding teachers for maths, English and functional skills. According to The Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF) work-based learning workforce survey for 2014-2015, these were “by far the most frequently cited subject areas with recruitment difficulties”.

Of the survey’s respondents, 33 per cent said that it was “very” or “quite difficult” to recruit teachers in functional skills, while 30 per cent said the same about maths. And 27 per cent of employers said that it was “very” or “quite difficult” to recruit the appropriate numbers of teachers for English and literacy.

I taught English GCSE and functional skills for my local council’s adult learning service, so, not surprisingly, I was welcomed with open arms. The ETF’s adult community learning (ACL) workforce survey for 2013-2014 reported that 57 per cent of respondents in this part of the sector had faced difficulty finding staff in English and literacy, rising to 74 per cent for maths and numeracy. This certainly chimes with my own experience. My former employer made no secret of the challenge in employing qualified teachers for English and maths.

The ETF’s survey also finds that 30 per cent or more of FE providers struggled to recruit in subjects such as English for speakers of other languages (Esol), family learning, health and social care and foreign languages.

I’ve thought long and hard about why teaching didn’t work out for me. After all, I’m a classic example of someone who enters the FE sector. I was 40 when I trained (according to the ETF, the average age of trainee FE teachers is 38, with a quarter aged over 45). I had spent years working in the media and, like many trainees, was a second careerist, entering the profession after considerable thought and financial cost. Noble-Rogers says that the numbers entering pre-service training remain consistent.

“It’s patchy,” he says. “Some people are having problems, but it’s holding up.”

The numbers entering in-service training are down, but he believes that this “might be because those who were teaching in colleges who needed to get qualified have done so”.

I planned to teach part-time and continue my work as a journalist. Again, this isn’t unusual for teachers in FE. According to the ETF’s ACL report, 92 per cent of teachers and training staff work part-time. This is considerably higher than in other parts of FE, including colleges and work-based learning. Around 70 per cent of trainees go on to work full-time.

I trained at the Institute of Education and my placement was at a well-respected, albeit challenging, sixth-form college based in inner London. It wasn’t a happy year. Every PGCE student will be able to relate to the nightmare of spending eight hours planning lessons only to see them fall apart within 10 minutes, but I also encountered feelings of loneliness and isolation, as I felt excluded by the staff.

Nevertheless, I ploughed on with my training and was fortunate enough to secure a job at Easter. It was my dream: working part-time and teaching adults in my local area. I was teaching GCSE English, as well as a 15-week course in functional skills. Yes, I was spending up to five hours planning a lesson, but I saw this as an investment. Do it once, and it’s ready the next time you need it, right?

Wrong. Due to the ways in which a cash-strapped learning service provider is forced to chase funding, we teachers had to deliver various extra units alongside functional skills. These kept on changing as funding changed. Thanks to Michael Gove, English GCSE also changed. I couldn’t keep up. The first year, I had eight hours of teaching and spent around 30 hours on planning, marking and attending mandatory (but unpaid) team meetings, as well as marking moderation meetings and regular CPD. Unlike NQTs in schools, I didn’t have a mentor and was feeling out of my depth, with no one to turn to.

My part-time salary didn’t cover my mortgage, but teaching was taking up most of my time. I spent my Sundays, half-terms and holidays working shifts in newspaper offices before lesson planning into the night. I was stressed, tired and skint. Hardly the dream I’d envisaged.

The second year, I reduced my teaching hours. However, whether you teach one GCSE class or seven GCSE classes, you have to attend the same amount of meetings and training sessions. I’d had enough, especially when I heard that some meetings were now going to be held on Saturdays.

Yet, while I’d had enough of the pay, the workload and ever-changing curriculums, I didn’t want to turn my back on the students. So although I’m now leaving paid teaching, I’m continuing to volunteer in the community.

A bout of ill health has forced me to take a career break, but when I’m back on my feet I’m going to hold reading groups for adults with low levels of literacy in the local library. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching adults who struggle with literacy improve their confidence and skills as they work on their reading and writing with me. No money will change hands; this way, I can control my time and my commitment.

I lasted just two years in the classroom, but I can’t help feeling that my career in education doing something I love is only just beginning.

Kate Bohdanowicz is a freelance journalist and a former FE lecturer @Kate_Bod

Recruitment troubles

Percentage of employers finding it very or quite difficult to recruit FE teachers

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