Why FE is a lifeline for its learners

From those with emotional difficulties to recovering drug addicts, new research demonstrates the vital role of the FE sector in transforming its students' lives

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We have been commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU) to carry out research which aims to understand and provide evidence of how the FE sector is vital in transforming lives and communities.

The study provides learners and teachers with the opportunity to tell their stories, linking the distinctness of FE to the impact it has on individuals, society and the economy, and strongly drawing out the role of the teacher in making a difference to quality teaching and learning. This will inform and facilitate UCU’s empowering and inclusive vision of FE, and will be a rich source of evidence to draw upon in campaigning work in order to influence policy makers and shape policy.

The politics of education and its link to learner identity and empowerment is explored in our study from the standpoint of how the teachers and learners have been shaped by FE. Part of the process of the research is to provide a lens to illuminate transformative pedagogical practices, which, for example, provide a tool for countering the dominant models and questioning how power and knowledge are valued, what counts as education and what does not, and who benefits from this and who is marginalised. We explore how transformational learning and teaching can empower the learners and lead to empowerment, joy and choices in their personal and public trajectories. Our data also provides insights into the impact that the educational experiences offered in FE colleges have an important impact in students’ families and communities. We probe how it challenges inequality and can be a sharp powerful tool for working towards real models of social justice.

The damage of 'labelling'

FE is a lifeline for many learners and can facilitate a learning journey which leads to hope and choice. FE teachers do an amazing job, often in challenging circumstances and often with students who have negative prior educational experiences.

The lives of a diverse group of learners as they undertook educational programmes, offer a key insight into the strong link between people's lives and their engagement in learning. It recognises how in some cases learners bring with them significant barriers, including negative prior experiences of education. In our study, Adam, Herbert and Anita all experienced labelling at school. For some students this stemmed from undiagnosed dyslexia but in others it related to other aspects of perceived identity – such as originating from an estate with a particular reputation which one learner described as "people like us were looked down on from our housing estate". This labelling led to lack of aspirations, underachievement, self-doubt and anger. The learners we encountered in our research often felt pathologised by their experience of secondary education. FE enabled them to reclaim these spoilt identities, to reconstruct them, to reposition themselves within their personal relationships and to re-enter their families and communities as active and resourceful individuals with hope and renewed status.

Other participants tell stories of overcoming problematic and painful significant domestic issues, for example, abusive relationships, alcohol dependency and mental health issues. These factors often led to low self-expectation, self-esteem and real lack of confidence which shaped the way they viewed themselves, the corollary being unemployment, social isolation and marginalisation. 

We position FE as a transformational and differential space in which people who have been in vulnerable situations, for example facing unemployment, poverty, violence, substance abuse or other social or emotional difficulties are empowered to rediscover their own agency, no matter what their trajectory so far. Claire, for example, spoke about the power of being listened to – really listened to – in FE and how she then began through the validation of her experiences both from teachers and within herself reclaim her voice. Once experienced, she had the motivation and drive had to get back into the classroom to have the positive emotions that allowed her to reclaim a spoilt identity to one of dignity. Nyomi opened up about being accepted for who she was and mixing with a diverse group of students in a way she never had at school; being part of something special where she felt valued and was able to value others. Another learner was a young man with a long term heroin addiction, who returned to learn at college as an apprentice. On the course, he quickly established himself as someone with the ability and responsibility to be successful on the course, in his job and have a trajectory into management position in his workplace. Kicking his habit, learning and gaining a trade was a lifeline to him.

'Establishing crucial relationships'

The teachers and their relationships with these students were often pivotal. At the core of their practice was a strong ethic around providing pastoral care, accepting students for who they were and believing in them. Some students had never experienced this and consequently, bloomed. In other cases, it involved challenging and subverting labelling. For example, Herbert’s dyslexia support teacher impressing on him the association between dyslexia and creativity. These personal interventions were often what made the difference.

This teaching approach values their history, present and future narrative, rather than fitting all learners into one learning narrative and prescriptive framework. It facilitated the learners to make their own connection with historical, social, economic and political structures that privilege the dominant ideologies. As they gained confidence and were facilitated on their learning journey within a supportive and holistic learning environment, they were encouraged to strive for their dreams.

This kind of practice takes into consideration the cultural, psychological and educational factors related to the learner. FE teachers often draw on their own personal experience and stories of resilience. In this way, often coming from the communities themselves, they become role models for individuals in those communities.

The teachers in this project, for example Jo, drew on her own experience as a student and used this to establish meaningful, caring and crucial relationships in her classroom. Other teacher participants work hard to establish learning and thinking environments in their classrooms which are founded on a shared understanding of equality. In such an emancipatory environment, students feel listened to and gradually develop the confidence to express themselves. From this they start to develop a critical view on their lives that helps them to move forward. It is only natural that from such environments, students become empowered to teach others. In this way, the impact of FE can be viewed as cumulative. The emancipatory and transformative impact ripples outwards into families and snowballs to impress itself on the lives and experiences of the communities that the students originate from, This validated their experience and deconstructed the old knowledge, where they blamed themselves for being "thick" and "stupid" because they struggled in compulsory education and substituted it with the construction of new, shared knowledge where they were able to see the inequalities and violence in their lives this had stemmed from.

This research project has uncovered hidden stories of people returning to education – the impact of which cannot always be measured by the colleges these learners attend. The counter-metrics charted by our project are typically embedded impacts related to health and well-being and may include personal, familial and community benefits. 

Throughout the project we will have an interactive portal where rich resources can be collected for use and sharing amongst FE learners, teachers and teacher trainers. This will support the sharing of materials and approaches across the UK and beyond. We welcome your experiences of transformation and stories, poetry and images which can be used as foils to represent the generative themes in the lives of the learners.

This blog aims to provide an overview of the UCU project, However, the transformative stories told by the learners and teachers can be found on the UCU project website. The Twitter page can be found at @FETransforms

Dr Vicky Duckworth and Dr Rob Smith are readers in education at Edge Hill University and Birmingham City University, respectively.

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