‘We’re teachers, not people who fill skills gaps’

28th September 2018 at 00:00
Teachers in FE are suffering an identity crisis. They warn that, with the sector now focused on industrial targets and employment outcomes, their status as expert educators is being diminished. Given the lack of funding and a widening pay gap, staff also admit to feeling undervalued. So how, asks Sarah Simons, can FE teachers reclaim their identity? How can they restore the pride in their profession?

Productivity. Employability. Upskilling. The language that dominates policy discourse in further education is firmly rooted in the world of business and the wider economy.

And with good reason. As the UK gears up for Brexit, FE has become integral to the economic strategy of a nation that is increasingly aware that it may no longer be able to rely so heavily on EU nationals in filling skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and instead is focusing on developing its own workforce of the future.

After decades of being overlooked by policymakers, FE is flavour of the month. “Colleges,” skills minister Anne Milton has insisted, “are absolutely fundamental to our thinking.” Major policy initiatives such as T levels, the National Retraining Scheme and the Industrial Strategy have arguably given the sector more visibility in Whitehall than ever before. And barely a day goes by without a senior politician waxing lyrical about the importance of apprenticeships.

“We want genuine partnership with the further education sector,” gushed the government’s Social Mobility Action Plan, published in December. “A self-confident sector with autonomy to use its own professionalism and expertise, alongside the proper investment and capacity-building from government to raise quality and ensure best practice is identified and shared.”

This self-confidence, though, is hard to detect. While interest in education research and pedagogy, opened up through social media networks, is thriving, the debate is overwhelmingly dominated by educators working in schools. And this imbalance is visible in crude financial terms, too: on average, college teachers earn £7,000 less than their counterparts working in schools. And, with the Department for Education funding a pay rise for school teachers in 2018-19 but not for those in colleges, the widening of this gap means that the prospect of achieving a genuine “parity of esteem” appears as distant as ever.

So, as the “education” part of further education appears to be becoming increasingly hidden, does the industrial-based description of college activity serve to undermine the professional identity of teachers and lecturers within it? And, with the importance of pedagogy in FE and adult education having been undermined linguistically, what can be done to give teachers a sense of agency in their professional identity?

“For 20 years, I’ve been told I’m not important as a teacher,” says Lou Mycroft, who has spent two decades working in adult and community education as a community worker, tutor and teacher educator.

“The only thing that matters is the learner; the only thing that matters is the learning. It doesn’t matter what I do so long as I can evidence it.”

‘Lack of respect’

And for many teaching in colleges, training providers and adult education, this sense of professional devaluation, exacerbated by long-standing and deep-rooted financial pressure in the sector, has been absorbed and internalised, Mycroft believes.

“To be someone who loves their pedagogy is almost to be an anomaly in FE,” she says. “All too often, there’s a suggestion that you’re too big for your boots, or God forbid, you might be some sort of academic.”

The spread of zero-hours contracts, as well as the long-term stagnation of pay – last week, FE commissioner Richard Atkins told Tes of one college that had offered no annual pay rise for a decade – has signalled a lack of respect for the FE teaching profession, according to David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges. “I don’t think there’s any justification at all for that pay gap to exist between teachers in schools and in FE colleges in the way it does. And it’s causing enormous problems in terms of attracting people and retaining people within the college workforce,” he says.

“I think it gets even harder when you start thinking about the job that government wants colleges to do more of: training in areas of skills shortages; engineering and construction, for example. Lots of anecdotal evidence says colleges are losing staff who teach in those sorts of areas because they can go and work in industry and get paid 20 grand more.”

Compared to these practical challenges, the use of language may seem like a superficial problem, but it has eroded the professional identity of educators and undermined the push for empowered, confident, agenda-setting professionals, Mycroft argues.

“We are teachers, not people who fill skills gaps,” she says. “We need to get our act together and we need to speak in the language of education. We’re losing the vocabulary to describe what we do. We need to be working with educators who haven’t got cynical and let the enthusiasm ripple out. Allow space for experimentation. Allow space to make mistakes.”

The predominance of industrial-speak can be traced back to policymaking for the FE sector residing within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills until 2016.

Political expedience dictated that those who represented the sector spoke the same language as ministers and civil servants. And that mode of communication, along with the overriding concept of colleges as businesses, permeated throughout further education.

The blurring of what constitutes professional identity for lecturers has also been influenced from inside the sector. With the concept of dual professionalism, that professional identity has often been forged in industry, with the identity of educator playing a secondary role.

David Russell, chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), cites a number of other reasons for the perceived lack of focus on pedagogy, including what he describes as the “cult of transferable skills”. “Where you’ve got lots of focus on transferable skills being the purpose of education, the flip side that is that you get a diminution of subject-specific pedagogy,” he says.

Inconsistencies in the level and quality of initial teacher training add to the problem, he suggests (see graphs on page 55). “Only about a third of teachers in our sector have teaching qualifications at level 6 or above. About a third have teaching qualifications at level 5, and about a third have teaching qualifications below level 5 or don’t have a teaching qualification yet. And I think that means that the profession as a whole lacks the confidence to talk about pedagogy.”

Another issue identified in the ETF’s annual workforce data is the low amount of CPD on offer in colleges. In 2016-17, more than a quarter of teachers spent fewer than 30 hours per year on CPD – below the level required under the former workforce regulations, which were scrapped in 2012.

The increase in the number of colleges hiring leaders from non-education backgrounds has exacerbated a culture shift, Russell adds. “They’re going to talk about metrics, outcomes, efficiency, effectiveness, learner satisfaction. All these are important things, but it’s not a dialogue of pedagogy. And if the person at the top of the institution is talking like that, that’s going to effect the whole institution,” he says.

Creative tension

As a former English teacher, Stella Mbubaegbu is a college leader well-grounded in the reality of life in the classroom. In the institution she leads, Highbury College in Portsmouth, as well as in the majority of colleges, the top job bears the title of “principal and chief executive”. The dual nature of the role – principal as academic head, and CEO as business leader – can cause “creative tension”, she admits.

“[The role is about] being aware of this, moving the conscious flow into what you value, and leading from that place: the day-to-day can crowd out what is at the heart of what we do and what we’re passionate about – teaching, learning and assessment. We need to keep hold of that core when making decisions from a business perspective.”

Another issue is the perception of vocational, technical and adult education as a means to an end.

In success rate figures, learning is only seen as having been worthwhile if it leads to a successful outcome – a job or continued education – rather than as a worthwhile pursuit in its own right. “That’s completely different from what goes on in schools and in higher education, where, of course, people are interested in outcomes to an extent but they don’t depend on outcomes for their validity,” says Russell.

“But if it’s all about the end, who cares what the teaching looks like, if we’re only interested in whether they got a better job?”

Hughes puts forward the example of the policy of GCSE resits in English and maths as a case in point. In 2013 it was made a condition of colleges’ funding that students who previously achieved a grade D (now a 3 under the new 9-1 grading system) should retake the subject.

“The policy came from the Department [of Education] thinking, ‘Colleges aren’t doing anything to help young people achieve English and maths. They must. Therefore we’ll impose something on them to force them,’” Hughes explains. “As soon as you do that, you’re immediately into some sort of confrontational situation.”

The move has proved hugely unpopular in colleges. A more successful approach, Hughes believes, would be to create a partnership between the DfE, colleges, schools and universities to develop a strategy, and to research performance in English and maths GCSE at key stage 4, and to look at the pedagogy of resits in the 16-19 arena.

“That would be a completely different conversation,” he continues. “It’s a really good example of where more focus on the pedagogy and what good teaching and learning looks like for that group of young people in that situation is sorely missing.”

Graham Razey, chief executive of East Kent College Group, agrees that developing a bank of pedagogical research for post-16 education would be an important first step. “At the moment, policymakers can almost ride roughshod over us because we don’t have anything to come back with,” he says.

But funding and time constraints have hindered the development of a culture of research in FE, Razey believes: “If you go into most organisations, they’re just too busy doing the job. We should have leaders talking more about pedagogy. But on what basis, their own reflections? I’ve got 20 years of reflections from my time as a maths teacher but they’re not based on proper research. I’m very passionate about maths, but would a policymaker really listen to me? Without an evidence base, the reality is it’s just one person’s view.”

The ETF is committed to increasing the pedagogical expertise of teachers and trainers. Advanced teacher status (ATS), launched last year, was introduced to recognise the experience, expertise and commitment of lecturers. A benefit of receiving ATS is that recipients are automatically conferred chartered teacher status, following an agreement between the ETF and the Chartered College of Teaching. This, however, is only the start.

For Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College, greater collaboration across the stages of education – and a more prominent role in pedagogy discourse for FE practitioners – could offer redemption for the sector in wider education circles.

“Take part, read, engage with social media… The Chartered College has nearly 1,000 members from FE – there’s a real interest. If, working alongside the ETF, we can do things to make that professional voice stronger, I think that benefits everybody.”

But the starting point, Russell insists, has to be supporting FE educators to give them the confidence to assert themselves on the bigger stage. “Taking pedagogy seriously – taking ourselves seriously as a profession, being really conscious about what sector practice looks like and getting better at what we do – is absolutely fundamental. The fact that lots of people don’t engage in a dialogue about pedagogy because they don’t really know how to, that needs to be fixed.”


Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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