It’s true to say that the further education sector can learn a lot from other sectors – but I do worry that we don’t prioritise developing our own practice, capability and thoughts.
I get very frustrated when I see large amounts of money spent on books, keynotes and trainers from outside the sector, especially from schools. Why aren’t we foregrounding our own people? Do we really think that someone from a school setting interpreting research can, by default, do it better than someone from our own sector? We’re surrounded by colleagues and ex-colleagues who are trainers or consultants or work in universities. These people are willing to help, develop and act as "critical friends". So why don’t we utilise their knowledge?
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It causes problems. I’ve heard stories where a key figure in a college has been out to a conference, seen a school-based "research-translator" speak and, as a result, has purchased a copy of their book for every staff member and booked them for subsequent CPD events.
On the surface, this seems like a good thing to do. But is the context and practice of schools the same as FE? The absence of FE specialists in schools suggests not. It raises questions about the development of our own sector’s practice and its inability to move away from the idea that teaching is generic and that somewhere there is a silver bullet that will make us all better teachers.
FE's most valuable resource
Recent research suggests that pedagogical development is far from generic. Last week, I watched Dr Kevin Orr’s lecturer on subject-specific pedagogy. He is a former Esol teacher who, with his colleagues at the University of Huddersfield, now leads the development of thought around pedagogy in the sector. Mr Orr says that he cannot offer simple buttons to press, but his argument does follow the context of the sector: his examples are from the sector, the policy he discusses is sector policy and the context he discusses is ours. He builds strong arguments that subject-specialism is the way to develop pedagogical practice in the sector, but offers a balanced perspective by looking at the way in which policy change often undermines pedagogical development.
There are two issues at play: borrowing ideas can add to the perpetuation of teaching as a generic agenda, and neglecting context is damaging both to the development of teachers and teaching. There is also a third: that by neglecting people from within the sector itself we are – by implication – damaging the sector.
Sector leaders often make the case for the under-appreciation and underfunding of the sector. But if the sector’s most valuable resource – its lecturers and teachers and their knowledge and practice – is ignored, then the whole argument is undermined.
It comes back to this idea that anyone can teach in FE, the idea that it’s easy to lay bricks, cut hair or look after children. It’s the notion that we don’t need to think about or respect practice in this area, because surely it’s just common sense? It’s so simple and doesn’t need theorising and we certainly don’t need to hear about what these people think about teaching, do we? I mean, after all, they probably didn’t get a degree, and they didn’t do a PGCE and if you can’t write a great essay about teaching, then you can’t possibly be a great teacher, can you?
But returning back to Kevin Orr’s argument, there is a strong link between subject knowledge and development of pedagogy, and, therefore, I would urge the sector to respect itself more than it does. We need to consider the importance of understanding the sector, its knowledge and its practice in developing its teaching and developing its own great people, great conversations, debate, and practice. We should look outside FE, but let’s respect and develop what’s within and around the sector first.
Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE Teacher of the Year at the Tes FE Awards 2019