We have diverse experience but one focus: our learners

1st January 2016 at 00:00
There can be tension between staff from academic and technical backgrounds, so emphasise shared goals

The management of FE colleges in some ways resembles management found in other educational sectors, but the varied prior experience of staff is more pronounced and demands significant attention.

Even common challenges are typically more pronounced, more extremely felt, in colleges. Funding may be an issue for schools, given that markets are at least part of the picture. But FE encountered the market earlier and finances are more tenuous – and placed under more scrutiny – because college work is not compulsory and whole programmes may be drastically reduced.

The backgrounds of administrative staff and teachers in schools has some variation. But the very size of colleges increases the potential disjuncture. According to workforce data from 2013-14, teaching staff make up only 49 per cent of the FE college workforce, with significant numbers of managers, clerical workers and service staff (see panel, right).

The size of these groups may promote helpful day-to-day teamwork, but it could prove more of a challenge to incorporate these teams into the ethos of the college.

Even more significant, though, is the likelihood that technical and academic lecturers have divergent experience.

This is markedly more of a problem than it is in schools and universities, where there is a similarity of experience through largely successful school careers and, in most cases, fairly rapid movement to a teaching role.

The background of many college technical lecturers is different – it may have involved successful school experiences, but it may not – and, crucially, it will have involved time spent in a very different workplace.

‘Dual professionals’

Technical lecturers do not automatically stop identifying with their original job. Rather, history shows that they are repeatedly encouraged to retain a tight relationship with their industrial background. This theme was advanced by Jocelyn Robson, who made the argument that technical lecturers are “dual professionals”. This is not merely because of the reasonable desire to retain credibility in a specialist field, but also because negative factors at work in college cultures can suggest that the new profession is only tentatively held.

Since Robson’s original research, we have seen a continued growth in the number of non-technical lecturers – largely absent from colleges initially, but now teaching courses in academic subjects and potentially even at university level – which may reduce the space and shared identity of technical lecturers.

Alongside this, we have the expectation that those teaching in FE will become qualified and, subsequently, the notion that those with appropriate industrial skills may be invited into colleges without any prior interest in education. The net effect of this does not move us very far in aiding the second profession.

Recognising the needs of technical and vocational lecturers is crucial. They may well need more support to develop their teaching skills, and it is possible that they may have less confidence in those skills. It is important for managers to recognise that they need additional care. Yet, in contrast to academic colleagues who are more likely to have teacher training experience within a university, technical staff are normally offered training in the college environment where they teach.

Are they seen as learners by their students? Somehow less skilled than others? Does this aid their status? If any group deserves to have off-site training, then technical lecturers do.

Arguably, at the very least, colleges should make a concerted effort to collectively reinforce the “second” professional role of technical lecturers by opposing the notion still muttered by some: that people from industry who have no teaching experience or skills are free to enter the college classroom.

CPD may not be seen as entirely desirable by all lecturers. Yet it has the potential to bring together diverse experiences under a teaching focus, aiding the development of lecturers’ skills and the wider college ethos.

Graham Fowler is an educational consultant, researcher and writer

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