FE matters too

by Alicia Bowman and Rob Peutrell

In thinking about what matters in education, let’s not forget further education – or the wider world of post-16 and adult education, not all of which goes on in colleges.  Our ‘Cinderella’ status has often been remarked upon.  Overshadowed by schools and universities, our sector has been neglected by policy makers, as well as by those seeking to defend public education.

Since colleges were made independent of the local authorities following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, much has been lost to further education.  Non-vocational programmes were an early casualty, so eroding the notion that learning has a cultural and social value irreducible to economic calculus.  Since colleges were ‘set free’ from local authority control, FE has been a testing-ground for marketisation, short-termism and ‘new managerial’ practices.   The consequence has been the narrowing of provision, policy churn, and systemic uncertainty.  Our salaries lag behind those of school colleagues; zero hour contracts are commonplace in the sector  And FE has been hit by funding cuts beyond those experienced by schools and universities.  Adult funding has been cut by 40% since 2008.  The funding rate at £4,000 for 16 to 18 year olds is 22% less than it is for 11 to 16 year olds, and less than half that of higher education. Not surprising, therefore, that the sector might sometimes appear to wallow in its Cinderella persona.

One reason – perhaps the reason – for the neglect of our sector is that it doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ academic route understood by those whose voices get heard in public debate.  FE students tend to be from less advantaged – working class and ethnic minority – backgrounds. Some 15% have learning difficulties or disabilities. No wonder that FE has been described as education ‘for other people’s children’ – the vocational poor relation.  It is telling that, as Minister for Business, Industry and Skills, Vince Cable’s advisors felt able to recommend the axing of FE colleges in England and Wales because ‘nobody will really notice’.  – at least, nobody who really mattered.

But further and adult education should matter to everyone concerned about educational access, social equality, and ending the discriminatory vocational-academic divide.  It may have been battered, but FE remains a large, diverse sector.  It currently caters for 2.3 million adult students (19+) and over three-quarters of a million 16 to 18 year-olds, with an additional 71,000 16 to18 year-olds undertaking apprenticeships through colleges, and 24,000 14-to-15 year-olds enrolled part-time.  And despite the battering, further education really can make a difference for youngsters who did not excel at school or adults let down by the schooling system, as the Transforming Lives and Communities project led by Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith is beginning to document.

Angelus Novus

Is it surprising that Walter Benjamin’s account of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, at times seems like a fitting description of our sector? Driven to implement the next ‘big’ idea, whilst the heap of ill-conceived ones grows sky-high behind us, the Angel -its back to the future- has no time to pause and consider what has not worked and why?

For some, Brexit offers new hope for FE colleges.  Investing in skills and training is seen as a precondition of prosperity.  However, how this fares in practice is yet to be seen.  The impact of Brexit on public spending notwithstanding, FE is littered with big ideas that were ill-conceived, sometimes abused, and with quality inadequately overseen.  Franchising provision, Individual Learning Accounts and Train to Gain were the most well-known.  There are already hints that apprenticeships – the new big idea – might also prove to be an ill-considered scramble.  Questions have been raised over: the future of non-apprenticeship vocational learning, the commitment of employers to the apprenticeships project, the quality of much of the apprenticeship offer, and whether the work-based learning will result in genuine sectoral skills rather than meet the specific requirements of particular employers who are being asked to take the lead in setting the standards for a ‘reformed technical education’.  This is not to mention a £200m levy pot reduction forecast by the Treasury in November last year.


The campaign for adequate funding remains key to the future of the sector.  But equally crucial is whether the sector can mobilise its internal resources – its capacity for thinking and creative agency at all levels – to challenge its Cinderella status and re-imagine itself with an assertive sense of purpose.  To that end research matters.

Our experience of post-graduate study persuades us of the crucial relationship between practice and research.  Research is personally challenging but professionally enlivening.  It gives access to insight and evidence and encourages a culture of professional learning that can contest opinion-led policy making.  We are encouraged therefore by FETL’s recommendation that in a rapidly changing landscape, FE sector leaders should encourage research engagement and invest in learning cultures in which research is valued .  Nurturing links between colleges and the HE research community – as well as with other organisations – is one way of developing this engagement.

There are all kinds of questions that should – and are being – asked within our sector.  What role will colleges play in local lifelong learning systems?  What kinds of internal cultures are needed to engage and develop the knowledge and experience of FE teachers and other staff?  What practical steps and changes in ethos are needed to nurture reflective, critically informed professionalism?  How will vocational education prepare students not just for the immediate labour market but for a world of work characterised by rapid technological change and – let’s call it out – systemic inequality?  How will colleges combine their vocational mission with an ethical civic vision that genuinely seeks to nurture democratic capacities?

Let’s start a conversation.  Engaging in research ought to be a fundamental part of teaching and learning in FE, too.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.




Why #researchmatters

by Howard Stevenson.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese proverb that is intended to be more an ironic curse than a blessing. Whilst we certainly live in interesting times I cannot think of any time in the 30 years I have worked in education that have not been ‘interesting’.  Nor should that surprise us. Few areas of social life have such an impact on every one of us individually. Education is, above all, about shaping our individual and collective futures.  Who are we? Who do we want to be? How do we want to live together? It is inevitable it will be the subject of discussion, debate and indeed dispute.

Education does not just prepare us for living in this new world, but it is also part of creating it. Education both shapes, and is shaped by, the world of which it is a part. At any one time, it both reproduces and transforms. This precisely why, for those who work in education, the opportunity should be a mix of privilege, exhilaration and responsibility.

Unfortunately many educators do not experience their work in this way. The fast pace of change, and the uncertainties of globalisation, have made politicians both anxious and arrogant. Tony Blair once said of education ‘we know what works’, the challenge apparently was to ‘apply those lessons [and] push them right through the system’. Change has to be rapid. Results must be immediate. All of this, in England at least, is reinforced by a top-down quality assurance system that decides what ‘good’ is without any meaningful involvement from local communities.

Powerful voices, often far removed from classrooms and the experiences of young people and their teachers, get to answer the big questions – what is education for? What should it look like? What is ‘good’?

Small wonder that teachers often feel devalued, and their professionalism undermined. Faced with constant changes to the curriculum, assessment and the high stakes accountability system that judges them it should not be surprising if a new dependency culture emerges. Over-worked and under-pressure teachers lower their sights – ‘just tell me what to do’. In such a world education research is either an irrelevance, or it is only useful if it is able to respond to the desperate plea ‘tell me what works’.

There is now an opportunity to change this. At policy level, there is a rhetoric that encourages teachers to engage with research (even if, for many teachers, having the time to be able to do this properly remains elusive). There are also many examples of teachers self-organising around research-engaged activities – in conferences, teachmeets and on social media. More and more research is becoming open source and accessible.

The problem remains that whilst access to new knowledge maybe opening up, the structures we often work in can serve to close it down. Much of the work that takes place is driven by a narrow set of questions, or the search for ‘quick wins’. The irony is that whilst we expect research to be transformatory, the reality may be that it is simply serving to reinforce. The challenge is to change this.

The answer lies in resisting the logic that separates teaching and research, and instead seeing teaching and researching as two sides of the same coin. Too often the two are divided (and this increasingly applies to universities as well as schools). Teachers teach. Researchers research. This is very different to the model of the early universities for example where teaching and research were seen as indivisible. The need now is to reinvent what Newman called ‘the idea of the University’ as a site of independent, critical thought and robust debate.  We need to celebrate research that asks big and difficult questions. We need to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty as the natural order, rather than pursuing quick fixes and easy wins. We need to debate what matters, as well as searching for what works. Above all we need to remind ourselves that the values of academic freedom, in schools as much as universities, are important features of a democratic society.

Such an opportunity provides a challenge to both researchers in universities and teachers in schools.  The challenge for researchers is to reinvent the idea of the university, but also to extend it beyond the bricks and mortar of the building we call ‘the university’.  The image of university education departments as disconnected and isolated ivory towers has long been a caricature. For example, in England the level of partnership work between schools and universities in relation to teacher education has been substantial over very many years. To portray it as otherwise is often a deliberate misrepresentation for political ends.  There is a need however to develop new relationships, be active in new spaces and not only make research more open and accessible, but more engaging.

The challenge for teachers is to begin to look up, in a system that often only encourages looking down.  Engaging with research is the way to re-professionalise the work of educators, and to counter the trends towards de-professionalisation that are long established in the system.  This is not easy.  Teachers’ working conditions often militate against such engagement, whilst the system, intentionally, does little to encourage discussion of big questions. However, the only people who can change this are teachers themselves. Many years ago, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves wrote a book entitled ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ I think teacher professionalism is worth fighting for.  However, this cannot be a ‘leave it to me, I’m the expert’ form of pseudo-professionalism. Rather it is a claim to professionalism predicated on a recognition of the extraordinarily complex work of teachers. This requires an engagement with research to help address the deep and complex questions that present themselves every day in every classroom in every school.

There is an opportunity to move beyond the impoverished debate about theory vs practice. Such divisions are unhelpful, and often cultivated deliberately. Another world is possible, but those of us who work in education must be willing to build it for ourselves. That possibility only becomes a probability if we find new ways to work together.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Time for a NEU Union?

jean-1-3by Howard Stevenson.

[This blog post was published prior to the Special Conferences of NUT and ATL. My understanding is that both conferences overwhelmingly supported the proposal – 97% in the NUT and 92% in ATL. This now presents a huge opportunity to engage with members and mobilise them around a much more optimistic vision of what it should mean to work in education].

On Saturday 5th November delegate conferences of two of the largest teachers’ unions in the UK (the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers) will meet to discuss disbanding as individual organisations to re-emerge as a new, single union. If both conferences agree to proceed, the proposal to create a new union, called the National Education Union (NEU), will go to a ballot of all members in both organisations in Spring 2017.

Should the new union become a reality (both unions are keen to assert this is not a merger of existing unions, but the formation of a new organisation), then make no mistake, this development will be both historic and significant.

Multi-unionism (the co-existence of more than one union in the same employment sector) is not unique to the education sector in the UK. Internationally, amongst teachers, it tends to be the rule, rather than the exception. The explanations for the divisions are complex – different sectors, different geographies, different political tactics and different ideologies are just some of the explanations for multiple unions in education. These divisions have often been maintained because teacher unions have not faced the same pressures on their influence and resources as have unions in manufacturing, or industries transformed by technology (think of publishing for example).

However, there is increasing evidence that divided teacher unions are a luxury classroom teachers and support staff can no longer afford. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in England.  As far back as 1987 governments have sought to marginalise teacher unions as the collective voice of teachers. This was when national collective bargaining was first suspended, and then abolished. This marked the start of the breaking up of the English public education system, and its replacement by a fragmented, competitive market in which privatisation looks to be the longer term objective.

Teachers experience all the negative consequences of these developments. Wholly unsustainable workloads, pay held down and tied to performance (often reduced to student test scores) and an accountability regime that is judgmental and punitive rather than developmental. The impact of these reforms is made visible in the labour market. It is difficult to recruit teachers, and even more difficult to retain them. This isn’t union rhetoric, it is the experience of huge numbers of headteachers everyday as they struggle to appoint and hold on to their staff.

England has the unenviable reputation as being the world’s global experiment in the neoliberal restructuring of public education. Fragmentation, de-regulation and privatisation are increasingly the hallmarks of the English ‘public’ education system. There are, inevitably, many complex reasons to explain how we have got to where we are, and I am not suggesting a divided teacher union movement is the only reason, or even the most important reason. However, nobody can seriously deny that a divided teacher union movement in England is one of the reasons why England has become the world’s laboratory for this dangerous experiment.

Research carried out by Nina Bascia and myself for Education International (the teacher union federation comprising 400 affiliates across 170 countries) and conducted in several countries outside of England has revealed how governments and employers deliberately seek to exploit the divisions between teacher unions in order to drive through unpopular reforms. Where unions have been effective in resisting these policies they tend to have fewer unions (sometimes a single union), avoid competitive multi-unionism (different unions competing for the same members as opposed to different unions organising in different sectors) and where there are different unions they still achieve high levels of cross-union collaboration. Such environments are also often characterised by classroom teachers and school leaders being represented by the same organisation (avoiding the growing divisions between school leaders and teachers that is a feature of the schools-as-businesses model of education).

What is clear is that the fragmentation of the English school system, in part introduced in order to weaken the collective power of teachers, is now, paradoxically, driving the unification of the profession. Faced with a beggar-my-neighbour system, in which each school and teacher is encouraged to undercut the other, teachers are realising they cannot exacerbate these problems with their own divisions.  In a fractured school system teachers need a strong, unified and independent voice that can speak for them on the full range of issues that confront them in their working lives – pay and conditions issues, but professional and policy issues too. Many of the most important issues in schools, such as testing and assessment, cannot be demarcated according to an old-fashioned separation between the ‘industrial’ and ‘professional’. The new union must speak for teachers in a way that bridges this unhelpful divide and which has influence at individual school and MAT level, as much as it has influence with government.

Both unions are confident their conferences will support the proposal for a new union. However, there can be no complacency that members will automatically support the idea. In the United States, dominated by two enormous teacher unions, much hard work to merge the unions was done in 1998, only for delegates of the largest union to reject the proposal and scupper the deal. All of this highlights the need for both unions, and their activists, to work hard between now and next Spring to campaign for the change.

However, if successful, the hard work will have barely started. The new union, due to be established on 1st January 2019, will have to fuse together very different traditions and cultures. For example, ATL is strong in the independent sector, organises in Further Education and has support staff membership, all of which contrast with the NUT.  ATL is often characterised as moderate, whilst the NUT may be seen as the most militant of the teacher unions. These differences will need to be ‘worked through’. Many differences may prove to be more myth than reality (on many policy issues there is a high degree of congruence), whilst others may prove harder to resolve. As a researcher of teacher unions, it will be fascinating to see how this unfolds.

My personal view is that teachers in England (in particular) have not been helped by a divided union movement. I have argued previously that a new union, representing a large majority of teachers, and possibly, in time, all those who work in education, should be seen as an exciting prospect for the profession. Teachers and school support staff desperately need an independent voice that governments and employers cannot ignore.Whilst I can see some merit in a new College of Teaching, it would be a grave mistake if any teachers thought for a moment this was a substitute for strong, independent unions. Indeed, the College of Teaching needs strong unions, because without them, the College risks being seen as an integral part of a smoke and mirrors system with a rhetoric of autonomy but a reality of managerialism and control.

In 1998, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan wrote a powerful book called ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ We would all have many responses to that question. Surely a genuinely independent and democratic voice for the education profession would be on that list. Given the scale of the challenges that have faced those working in schools in recent years, and which are likely to intensify in the future, my view is that it is a prize worth fighting for.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.