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United we must stand

Professionalism. That word has reared its ugly head again. It looms over the sector, provoking either a doleful resignation to perceived mediocrity or a defensive invitation to the pub car park for whomsoever dared bring it up.

As clouds formed overhead, a raven appeared on a tree outside my office. I picked up Lord Lingfield's report, Professionalism in Further Education. Examining levels of professionalism is unsettling for any sector: the very asking of the question implies doubt. I took a big breath and began to read.

Hang on. Sector employers sharing responsibility for encouraging professionalism by offering moral and tangible support? A proposed guild that addresses the confidence deficit by emphasising cross-sector solidarity in teaching staff? An improved teaching qualification framework? It almost seems as if this report is designed to improve teachers' professional lives rather than criticise them.

I started thinking about issues of professional solidarity in FE. In my experience, college lecturers collectively mobilise at the drop of a hat, but urgent unification is often as a result of a problem that needs strength in numbers to confront.

Conversely, positive unity, the coming together of like-minded souls to discuss educational matters and share best practice, is quite rare.

As a measure of the accuracy of this theory I took to the well-known shrine of wisdom and hilarious dog pictures: Twitter. I have learned more than I did in several years of school from hanging around on Twitter with educational masters, teachers and troublemakers. They furiously debate, discuss new practices and point each other towards relevant theorists.

I explored umpteen search options but was unable to locate a community of FE teachers and trainers who connect in the same way school teachers do. If Twitter is any measure of the real world, does this lack of representation of those who proudly describe themselves as being an active part of the FE and skills sector demonstrate low levels of professional self-esteem, as described in the Lingfield report?

There are many enlightened FE types on Twitter, but they are mainly in senior positions rather than at the classroom end. With 140,000 teachers and trainers in the FE sector, there had to be more than the few I had located on the site. In an effort to urge colleagues to show themselves I tweeted: "Are there FE lecturers on Twitter that I haven't found yet? So far I have located about 15. In total. Surely there are more. Please help!"

Happily, the call was retweeted by some popular Twitterers and FE people at every level started to come forward. We discussed how we could instigate a positive unity and begin FE specific discourse. We settled on a regular weekly time to congregate and a hashtag to formalise our efforts. And lo, #ukfechat was born.

That Thursday at 9pm something marvellous happened. There was no confidence deficit. Just inspiring, motivated people from all areas of the FE and skills system discussing issues that matter.

This experimental Twitter initiative is a step towards a forum where ideas of mutual interest can be exchanged. If it represents the enthusiasm of practitioners on a bigger scale, it offers great optimism about the proposed guild's intentions of uniting all areas of the sector to emphasise a stronger professional identity.

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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