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'Where the IfL went wrong, and why the ETF has already failed with its legacy'

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The Institute for Learning's former president reflects on its legacy

I remember the last board meeting of the Institute for Learning very well. We sat in a room at the IfL office and read out the declaration that formally ended the Institute's life. Each board member had to read the same phrase aloud, starting with the chair. It was a quite a melodramatic event. Some could barely speak with emotion. Some burst into tears. I felt a strange conflict of black humour versus tragedy. How should I read the declaration? In the Shakespearian manner? With pathos? With the least possible emotion? In the end I sounded a little like a BBC announcer telling the public that World War 3 had broken out. The word 'surreal' probably is inadequate to the situation. But finally, IfL was no more.

What had we won from the years of activity? A horrendously embarrassing public conflict with a significant proportion of its own members? A stab-in-the-back report from Lingfield? A sense of declining powers as the membership numbers dropped? Impotence to alter events? The loyalty of many tutors and lecturers? The beginnings of a sense of solidarity? QTLS? A legacy? But what legacy?

Diagnosing IfL's problems can lead to a sense of what should not be duplicated in future. Firstly, the Institute had every aspiration to be a democratic member-led body, but constant interference from government led to a conservative (with a small 'c') and inward-looking organisation that was increasingly centralised in London. Though IfL spoke often of the best standards in education (involvement, participation, motivation, devolved control) it found the same principles hard to implement internally. Much talk was expended on the subject of regionalised activity, but little was actually done to make this a reality. By the time this idea became a priority, it was far too late.

Secondly, much of the leadership was far too dependent on one or two highly public individuals, around whom a quasi 'cult of personality' grew. Anxieties about distribution of power or the health of the IfL in the light of this dependency (well documented in organisational theory) went by the board. When an organisation becomes very dependent on one or two people you know something is deeply wrong.

Lastly IfL's conflicted identity as both 'voice of the membership' and 'maintainer of educational standards' led to a deeply faulted organisation that did neither role particularly well. Its sense of self as a community of practice was never assured enough to be a true representative of the professional ideal – either in terms that members could identify with or which successive governments felt happy about. For many of us (including me as president) there was a sense of constantly being apologetic, of defending a weak position like a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe.

Hence, if we know what we don't want, where do we go from here? The growth of a new body to replace IfL is a sensitive matter, and like a delicate flower needs a considerable degree of deft cultivation to produce any long-term growth. Ironically, the legacy that was passed on to the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) has since become laughably bland and inconsequential. ETF offers a 'service' to its members, which looks surprisingly similar to IfL but without any of the human presence that at least gave the Institute a personality. Worse still, the Foundation is still unable to come to grips with democratic representation within its Society for Education and Training. For reasons unknown, it finds the idea that tutors, trainers and lecturers might actually know how to organise themselves difficult to integrate into its larger processes. In this sense, it has failed IfL's legacy, and sadly whatever it does from now on will be tainted by this failure which parallels the IfL's democratic deficit.

The 'new' College of Teaching also blunders at the outset for many of the same reasons. Where are the arrangements for democratic involvement? Who will make policy, and how do members influence change? To what extent will government call the tune on what the CoT can and can't do? Will the CoT speak truth to power? Or will it 'do an IfL' and walk a narrow line between its paymaster and its members, satisfying neither? And most importantly: what teacher will be confident enough to join such an organisation (and invest 'somewhere' between £30 to £130 a year in subscription fees) if this seems all too familiar a story? Once bitten, twice shy.

We do need a professional body. We need the community of practice we deserve, that can aid us to be the best we can, help express our informed opinion on policy change, and speak boldly about the inadequacies of our educational system. We (as tutors, teachers, educators) are not going to get this without democratic involvement being securely built into such an organisation at the very outset. The signifier of outside control is lack of autonomy, and both the SET and CoT reek of control.

Of course, I'm biased, but I've thrown in my lot with Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators. It's not hard to understand why; Tutor Voices was a practitioner initiative, put together by a mixed bag of those who were both pro and anti IfL. In many respects they have worked within the light of perhaps making the best of the Institute's positive legacy and yet strenuously avoiding its fatal mistakes. Tutor Voices has sought regional organisation at its very outset, debates long and hard on member involvement, and seeks to be a mass movement with a very loud voice. Currently membership is free, and the long term aim is to keep any costs at a very low level. How will it develop? That clearly depends on the democratic will of its membership.

Sound too good to be true? Perhaps IfL's legacy can have a rebirth where its former members least expect. Not in the dusty corridors of government policy manipulation, but at the legendary 'chalk face' where the work gets done and the standards of teaching and learning are enacted. At the end, the sense of a profession can only come from those who embody it, and who deserve the right to a say in its well-being.

Bea Groves was president of the Institute for Learning (IfL) from 2012-13, and vice chair of its non-executive board in 2014. She is currently honorary national president of Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators. She has worked in the post-compulsory sector since 1980. She lives in North East England.

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