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Understanding the Further Education Sector
A Critical Guide to Policies and Practices
By Susan Wallace
Critical Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Susan Wallace
All rights reserved.
Introduction: the frog waiting for a kiss
This chapter is designed to help you gain an understanding of:
how the name of the FE sector has changed over time;
how the change in the sector has both reflected its role and shaped public perceptions of its purpose and status;
how the sector has been represented through metaphor by politicians and other policymakers and how this draws on and shapes its image in the public mind;
the themes and arguments covered by each chapter of the book, and how they link together.
This chapter introduces the purpose and theme of the book, and argues that some of the over-used metaphors used to describe the sector – such as the 'Cinderella' of the education system – not only present a deficit model but also imply that there must be an easy, 'wave of the wand' way to adjust its status. If this were true, such an adjustment would surely have happened by now. The various names that have been used for the sector are also discussed here, in terms both of what these tell us about how its agreed purpose has changed over time, and how each of its aliases may have shaped public attitudes towards it, its teachers and its learners. Finally, the chapter goes on to provide a summary of those that follow, providing signposts to key themes and arguments so that the book can be navigated in a way that meets your particular needs.
Derek's farewell speech
Derek has been teaching at the same college for more than 35 years. At his retirement 'do' he makes an informal speech. Here's part of it.
People say to me, 'How did you stick it? Being at one place all that time. Thirty-five years! What's the matter with you, Derek?' And I say to them, 'Hang on, hang on. Wait just a minute. One place? What are you talking about? Don't you believe it! I may have been here all that time, but listen: I've worked at a tech college and I've worked at a college of technology and I've worked in an FE college. And I've been a lecturer and then an assessor and then a trainer and then a teacher. And I've worked in FE and then in Vocational Education and Training; and I've worked in the Learning and Skills Sector; and I've worked in Lifelong Learning. And now I'm working in FE again. So don't tell me I've never had a change. I've had too much bloody change. I'm exhausted!'
By the time he gets to this point, everyone in his audience is laughing. They might not have put it quite like this, but they recognise exactly what he's saying.
What's in a name?
Shakespeare's Juliet argues that names don't matter. 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' she says. But this chapter puts forward the opposing argument, that names do matter, especially in this age of advertising and spin. The way we refer to what we now call Further Education not only tells us something about the way the sector and its role is perceived, but also has the power to shape society's perception of it. Names, in other words, can both reflect and influence our understanding of what it is we're naming. And when it comes to names and name changes, FE has certainly had a long list for us to think about.
If we go back 50 years, we find that the institutions that offered full-time vocational courses for school leavers, and day release or evening provision for people gaining qualifications while in employment, were known as Technical Colleges. The common abbreviation for them was Techs. At the age of 15 (which was then the minimum age for leaving school) students would make their choice about whether to stay on at school to take A levels, or go to the Tech to gain the appropriate qualification for their chosen line of work. This was before the days of widespread youth unemployment, and the decision to leave school was often made because the young person wanted to begin earning a wage. From this point of view it was usually a decision based on some degree of choice, rather than a route taken through lack of other options as is frequently the case for learners entering the sector today. In Chapter 2 and 3 we'll be investigating this issue of choice – or lack of it – and the effect it may have on students' motivation and engagement with learning. But what does the name Technical College tell us about the sector? 'Technical' is a word suggestive of work that demands skills; not necessarily those of a scholarly or theoretical kind, but nevertheless important skills, involving accuracy, dexterity, expertise, ingenuity and flair. We can take 'technical', therefore, as a term that was used to differentiate this sort of education from the purely academic. The sector as a whole was known then as the Further Education sector, indicating that, for most, it followed on from school and provided learners – literally – with further education, to be distinguished from the universities and other institutions that provided degree-level higher education. The overall curriculum provided by the Tech College, however, would be described in those days as technical education.
By the late 1970s, colleges were renaming themselves, often as Colleges of Technology. Two obvious explanations for this are the shift in the economy away from heavy industry and manufacturing towards the beginnings of technological growth; and also, perhaps, the nuances of the word 'technology' itself, which suggest more of complexity, status and an eye to the future than is expressed by the merely technical. By the 1980s, however, there had been further changes of terminology; the sector was still referred to as Further Education, and the same institutions were now usually calling themselves Colleges of Further Education. This name change could be seen as quite significant. What does the transition from 'Technology' to 'Further Education' suggest about how the role of colleges at that time was developing, and what the curriculum was expected to provide? Our understanding here hinges on that word, education. It suggests something broader than job-specific training, a more flexible purpose than instilling technical competence or even knowledge of specialised technologies. It suggests a curriculum of equal use and value with – and offering a broad path of progression from – that of schools. Certainly FE colleges in that era were attempting to combine a vocational curriculum with elements of a liberal education, as we shall explore further in Chapter 2 and 5. 'Liberal' here is used in the sense of broad or general – encompassing subjects such as literature and philosophy – as opposed to purely vocational, which implies a narrower and functional process that focuses on developing a specific set of work-related skills. In the Further Education colleges of the 1980s, learners were still referred to as students rather than trainees; a terminology again suggesting a broader purpose than simply the acquisition of work skills. In fact the term 'trainee' came into use gradually from the 1980s onwards, first through the introduction of youth training schemes such as YTS, and later, in the 1990s, through the introduction of competence-based assessment that defined the purpose of the FE curriculum firmly as one of preparation for work and left no leeway to incorporate a broader, liberal model.
During those decades, as colleges were progressing through a series of name changes, the terminology used to describe the curriculum they offered was undergoing changes, too. In the days of the Tech College, students were said to be entering Technical Education; the word 'technical' denoting work-related skills, while 'education' indicated perhaps a continuation of the broader personal development begun in school. Over the next couple of decades it became more usual to refer to the curriculum as Vocational Education. The word 'vocational' is an interesting one – clearly work-related, but suggesting perhaps a wider range of skills now than the simply technical or manual. 'Vocation' is a word used to describe the work of priests, doctors, lawyers and teachers, for example. So, although training for these professions was clearly not being offered, the very word 'vocational' could be said to have, by association, a broader scope and suggestion of higher status work than 'technical'. In the 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of training schemes and NVQs, and the change of identity from students to trainees, the work of the sector was often referred to as Vocational Education and Training (VET). At the same time, there was always the term 'post-compulsory sector', used to indicate all post-16 provision, and also including, therefore, higher and adult education. During all subsequent upheavals, post-compulsory sector or post-compulsory education remained, and still remains, a useful synonym for FE and is usually taken to apply to that sector specifically. It seems to imply willing attendance and a route that learners follow by their own choice. However, as we shall see in Chapters 2, 3, 5 and 8, this may be a somewhat misleading impression. In 2001, the Learning and Skills Council took over the work of the Further Education Funding Council, marking another change of terminology. The FE sector was now the Learning and Skills Sector. The word 'skills', like 'technical' before it, places the emphasis firmly on meeting workforce needs.
The term Lifelong Learning Sector was introduced under the Labour governments of 1997–2010, who set up the sector skills council, Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK) in 2005 to regulate the professional development of teachers and trainers in the sector. It's an interesting use of words, and one not confined to the UK. It reflects not only the constant need for the updating of work skills in an era of rapid technological development, but also the relative impermanence of employment in the twenty-first century, where most people can no longer expect a job for life and must expect breaks and changes in their employment, with the consequent need for upskilling or reskilling. In some European countries – Italy, for example – it is also strongly associated with adult education on a broader and more liberal model. In the UK, however, the term became closely associated with the Labour party policies; and so, with the defeat of that government in 2010, the subsequent dissolution of LLUK, and the overturning of related policies for the sector, the term 'Lifelong Learning Sector', which continues to be used elsewhere in the world, now became problematic in relation to college provision. Since then the term 'Further Education' has crept back into use. Of course, we could say it never really went away. It always remained the term most people used when talking about colleges. Whatever the colleges or the sector were calling themselves at the time, FE college was a name that seemed to stick.
Does all this matter? Well, yes, it really does. The language we use, or are encouraged to use, as well as shaping how we see things, can also reveal a lot about our shared values and attitudes. For example, think about the word 'master'. What do you associate with this? Mastery, perhaps; or leadership. Now consider the word 'mistress'. All we have done is to change the gender; but notice the difference in values and attitudes associated with it. You can see the same thing with the words 'bachelor' with its positive connotations of freedom and fun, and 'spinster'. They are both words to describe unmarried people, but they are value-laden in very different ways. When the Conservative party came to power in 2010 they created a Ministry of FE, Skills and Lifelong Learning. It's a lovely example of hedging the bets. 'Skills' satisfies some because it signals that it's about preparation for work; 'FE' satisfies those who believe it should not be simply instrumental, not only about preparation for work; and 'Lifelong Learning' appears to preserve – for the time being – the status quo. This matter of language can be unintentionally comical, too. John Hayes, who headed that ministry, delivered an early speech to representatives of colleges in which he deployed the words 'learning', 'education' and 'training' interchangeably when speaking about the FE curriculum. This choice of vocabulary was meant, perhaps to signal his support for the principle of parity between vocational and academic routes, that both were equally to do with learning and education, even if FE focuses most on training. However, he reportedly went on to say: 'I've done some bricklaying today. I want to live the job.'
Critical Thinking Activity 1
» At the beginning of this chapter we heard from an FE teacher, Derek, looking back on the changes he's seen during his career. Think about how you could find out how the name and mission of your own college has changed over the past few decades, and how those changes have affected the working lives of its teachers.
» Now consider the following pairs of words and identify the difference in terms of the ideas and status associated with each.
a)student – trainee
b)lecturer – trainer
c)examination – test
d)teach – deliver
» What conclusions would you draw from this about the vocabulary of education and training?
The fairy tale sector
One of the most famous descriptions of the FE sector is the one given in a speech by Kenneth Baker in 1989 when he referred to it as the 'Cinderella' sector. What he may have meant by this is that the sector had been, up until that time, neglected in favour of its two sisters, compulsory schooling and higher education; but that it was, potentially, the most promising of the three and would soon come into its own. All it needed was a fairy godmother to give it the wherewithal – in this case, presumably, adequate funding – and tell it, 'You shall go to the ball!' So, was Kenneth Baker describing himself as a fairy godmother? It seems unlikely. And, in any case, FE didn't appear any the better off at the end of Baker's stint as Education Secretary than it had at the beginning. And was it really likely that he was claiming FE's status, given half the chance, could outshine schools and universities? That seems a bit unlikely, too. But when you use a metaphor, like this one about Cinderella, you must expect people to unpack it. A metaphor is a figure of speech where a resemblance between two things is implied by using one to stand for the other. 'He's a pig' is a good example. It's saying 'he' looks or behaves (or smells or eats) like a pig. But it's not to be taken literally. He's not actually a pig (unless you're pointing to a pig when you say it, obviously). So when Baker calls FE the Cinderella of the education sector, we are justified in exploring just what the resemblance is that he's drawing our attention to. Cinderella does all the mucky work, gets her hands dirty, while her sisters swan about. She has the lowest status in the household; her poverty is obvious from her outward appearance – no finery for her. And it's all very unfair. Is this what he means? We'll never know for sure. But it went down well at the time. The FE sector took it to indicate that it had gained some recognition at last and that good times were on their way. But such things are never achieved by the wave of a wand; and in some ways we could see Baker's use of the Cinderella metaphor as typical of politicians' rhetoric. It was astute in that it won approval, but profoundly misleading in suggesting that there was any magical quick fix that would in a flash raise the status of the FE sector and give it parity of esteem with universities.
In 2005 we were offered a different metaphor. Foster, in his report, Realising the Potential: A Review of the Future Role of Further Education Colleges (2005) described FE as the 'middle child' of the education system, occupying its position between schools (younger) and higher education (older). He seems to have been drawing here on the idea that the middle child of a family is often overlooked or neglected – a theory that has entered the popular imagination and seems most often subscribed to these days by middle siblings looking for a bit of sympathy over their third pint. Foster's middle child has obvious elements in common with Baker's Cinderella. Both draw on the idea of neglect and of a hopeless rivalry with others who should be viewed as equals but are in practice – and quite unfairly – both better loved and more valued. Under careful scrutiny, each of these metaphors looks very much like just another deficit model of FE, but disguised as something else – a show of concern, perhaps; or an expression of solidarity. In Chapter 4 we'll be exploring further how the language of metaphor has been used to shape and reflect our perceptions of FE; and how it sometimes gives us clues to the real attitudes behind the rhetoric of policy documents and public statements. Meanwhile, if we have to think of FE in terms of fairy tales, I'd rather present it as the frog in The Princess and the Frog, a useful creature who rescues the princess's ball from a well and in return asks only to be fed from her plate and to share her pillow and be shown that he is loved. Of course, when this happens he turns into a handsome prince. Just so, FE is only waiting to be cared for, given equal rights and treated with respect before it will be transformed before our very eyes into a sector of high status and well-deserved reputation. In other words, it's a frog just waiting to be kissed. The only difficulty is that its current image may exclude it from the very embrace – in terms of policy reform – necessary to transform it.
Excerpted from Understanding the Further Education Sector by Susan Wallace. Copyright © 2013 Susan Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
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