Why flexible and fascinating FE is enticing schoolteachers

27th May 2016 at 01:00
Colleges may be facing tough times, but switching sectors is still an attractive option for secondary staff

No more detentions, phone calls home or breaking up fights. So long soggy playground duty, enforced after-school clubs and monotonous parents’ evenings.

It’s easy to see why school-trained teachers might consider FE to be an attractive sector – although the workload is no less intense. With its reputation for being inclusive and female-friendly, post-compulsory education can present an interesting alternative to the secondary system.

For parents, the flexibility offered can be a particularly big draw. Fractional appointments are the norm in FE, and many tutors choose to combine their teaching with other work or family responsibilities. Job-shares are also commonplace, with working mothers actively encouraged to apply for promotion.

In FE, it’s understood that not everyone will follow an identically neat trajectory of school to university to workplace, and that education should be accessible to anyone who wants it. It’s refreshing to work in an environment where there is no age limit on success, and it’s inspiring to watch students take their lives in new directions.

Tutors, too, hail from all walks of life, often enjoying success in the private sector before moving into teaching with a host of skills and accumulated life experience.

For students, FE can be a route out of a difficult situation or a first step towards a more interesting future. For tutors, it can be an opportunity to teach their subject in an academic environment that promotes lifelong learning and continuous self-improvement (minus the behavioural issues typically found in a secondary school).

Motivated learners

In fact, older learners are often more naturally curious, independent and better able to make connections. They bring interesting stories and experiences to the classroom, and are less inclined to waste time. Free from the distractions of teenage melodrama, FE students are typically hard-working and motivated, with a genuine interest in their chosen subject – making teaching more enjoyable for everyone.

FE tutors are not expected to care about straight ties, top buttons on shirts or running in corridors, which frees up time to concentrate on actual teaching. Even in the halfway house of the sixth-form college, students are largely treated as adults, with freedom from arbitrary rules and school policies.

In FE, tutors will often teach a mix of academic and vocational courses to students from a diverse range of backgrounds. There is little that is more satisfying than watching the development of a 33-year-old mother of three who always thought she was stupid. Or helping a disaffected 19-year-old into an apprenticeship. Or giving a 65-year-old man the chance to refresh his skills.

It’s the privilege of teaching students who have selected your class and chosen to spend time with you (a position a person can only fully appreciate after enduring an interminable double period with Year 9 on a windy afternoon). Although FE work is not without its downsides – colleges are usually underfunded, the holidays are often shorter and full-time positions can be hard to find – it is, for the most part, varied, challenging and ultimately very satisfying.

Then there’s the cachet of being a “lecturer” rather than a “teacher”, with students who appreciate your hard work and feedback. It’s wonderful to be able to help a student of twice your age and life experience who’s elated to be given a second chance.

At a time when education and adaptability are paramount, FE exists to improve happiness, prosperity, social mobility and life chances. As the “job for life” becomes an anachronism, FE seems more relevant than ever. Even in the face of sweeping cuts to the sector, this is why many schoolteachers are making the move.

Natalie Nezhati is head of English at a sixth-form college in the South of England

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