It’s been a good week for further education thanks to the Love Our Colleges campaign, where FE has become a little bit more visible to the world outside of our sector.
The exhausting irony is that there isn't a world outside our sector. In most people’s lives, you can't swing a cat for hitting someone or something that’s deeply entrenched in the world of FE. It’s just not pointed out.
Before I worked in this sector I hadn't the foggiest what FE was, never mind what people actually did in colleges.
My only clue was that both my parents went to the local tech as part of their apprenticeships, one a plumber the other a hairdresser. But to me, “the tech” was a piece of family history rather than a thriving place of education, which to this day provides all sorts of courses, supporting the local people and economy.
A lack of FE on telly
A big part of FE’s hiding-in-plain-sight issue is the lack of representation in mainstream media. We edu-sorts can bang on about the wonders of FE is as much as we like, but if it only reaches the people who already know, then we may as well be shouting into a washing-up bowl.
If I’d have known FE existed and was a real option for me when I was 16, I probably wouldn't have blown two years at school on A levels which at the time I had no interest in, did no work for, and consequently flatlined.
Mainstream media’s factual reporting of FE has been historically lacking, but that’s nowt compared to its presence, or lack thereof, in the fictional world of British TV and film production.
There are a few American TV shows that feature their version of FE, community colleges, most notably the brilliantly ridiculous Community, but can you think of anything based at or even giving a nod to the FE sector in this country? No me neither.
NVQ student to the rescue
That changed a couple of Sundays back when a wholly positive representation of vocational education beamed out of my tellybox in one of the most anticipated and widely watched programmes. It came in the shape of – please imagine a waaaay too long drum roll here: Doctor Who.
No not the Doctor herself, who I’m predictably potty about (Of course I am: a gobby Yorkshire weirdo who makes me chuckle, is a dab hand at mending and making everything and can wage war on bad-uns while still remaining a pacifist? I'm well up for her as my leader.) But I’m not on about her.
May I refer you to one of her entourage of sidekicks, Ryan Sinclair, played by actor Tosin Cole. Ryan’s a 19-year-old part-time student who, by the way, is struggling to manage the day-to-day frustrations which his developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) brings.
His resilience and determination sees him try and try again to conquer tasks like riding a bike and climbing a ladder. We also find out in the first episode that Ryan is working in a warehouse, which he hates, to earn a bit of cash while studying for his NVQ. “I’m trying to be a mechanic,” he shrugs.
By episode two, having got his head around the whole time travel palaver pretty sharpish, he emerges as the gang’s technical expert. At one point he finds himself staring down the mechanical innards of a dilapidated boat, bobbing atop an alien sea of flesh-eating microbes.
The boat is their only means of escape, their lives depend on it, so he must mend it (it would be an audacious twist to kill ‘em all off in episode two, given there are eight more in the series).
It’s a high-pressure task, even for a level 3 student, so his step-grandad (Bradley Walsh) gently eggs him on, quipping “Those NVQ classes must be good for something, an engine’s an engine”.
And, sure enough, Ryan solves the problem, fixes the craft and helps the gang make it through another episode unscathed. Well, only lightly scathed.
'He is an FE hero'
Ryan’s skills are important. He is not “less than” because he has dyspraxia or because he’s doing an NVQ. He is portrayed as a competent, intelligent, complex person who fixes stuff. He is a hero. He is an FE hero, highly visible in the most mainstream of media.
The value of mainstream visibility is to share FE’s purpose, that we provide a smorgasbord of options for our students.
We need to get that message not only to the prospective students themselves but to the people who guide them, be that parents, teachers in schools or anyone else who values the importance of the right path for the right kid.
Of course, the other big wish resulting from more FE visibility is to catch the eye of high rollers in Westminster who have the power to nudge the cash towards us, or in another direction entirely.
The reason we keep on shouting, demanding greater visibility, is the hope that our calls reach beyond our own circle, and permeate into wider the consciousness. It’s been said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease – probably applied by someone like Ryan Sinclair.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons