On area based reviews and heutagogy

The announcement of the area based reviews of FE this week seems sensible: improved stream-lined provision that fits local economic contexts focused more on employment seems the gist. I do have some concerns which were badly phrased in this weeks #ukfechat. I admit I was a few ales in and have learnt my lesson there. I was shut down for interrogating the implications of the ABRs. Waking up today, I felt a little mortified, then recognised we’d been arguing for the same things. 

My concerns are the direction of FE and its potential to pigeon-hole and shrink aspirations. In the weeks induction with my students, the Initial Asssessment questionnaire I’d designed aimed to encourage a growth mindset with projections of future ambitions and how to achieve them. Responses from the English GCSE set ranged from ‘start my own plumbing business’ to ‘be a drug dealer/marry a footballer’. Standard working class-fare? 

My paradigm of education is based on heutagogy: a focus on process (that fits well with FE) and the development of self-efficacy and capability to deal with an uncertain environment. We know from Bauman that the world is capricious, temporal, less secure, and “liquid”. Previous superstructures, which supported existence, have been disrupted by circumstances of modernity.

To manage – students need to be flexible and competent to unpredictable conditions. Taken as an erratic job market, is it risky to train for one focus at a young age? Not in the German model of apprenticeship, which – as usual – is advanced and probably superior (if only self-regardingly). In Germany, the class system is less encoded into social attitudes than it is in the UK. Trades people are very well paid and respected in a way I don’t think exists here. Their apprenticeship system is based on a solid manufacturing industry and their pride in quality is reflected by their pride in retaining brands, rather than flogging them off. Are these cultural contexts interchangeable and can these models be transferred? Somehow I doubt it.

My point is that I worry that we continue to compound the British class system with our tiered system. I overhear FE staff thrust kids onto courses sometimes: ‘why don’t you try hairdressing?’ Choice made, they sign them up. And then they’re a hairdresser – and, incidentally, if employed, they’re potentially sitting on a goldmine. After oil and coffee, I understand that women’s hairdressing is next on the Bloomberg lucrative stocks list (£140 every two weeks – you what? Sign me up).

I still believe that a decent, well-funded education system can allow for mobility; by stretching expectation and aspirations, it cuts across routes to futures that are predetermined by the postcode lottery of birthplace. In my job interview where I work it was expressed: ‘kids here don’t have horizons.’ It’s true, many have never visited the nearest city (12 miles away); there’s no rail network; domestic unemployment is normal; A-levels have been scrapped; courses are streamlined and well populated. So how will the (deprived) local economy support employment competition in such high quantities – especially if you reduce the imagination to transcend a landscape that leads to students ambitions being ‘to marry a footballer or sell drugs’?

Of course it’s sensible to couple local training to local employment, but I hope it’s not all, because we do live in an insecure world. Capability and self-efficacy are paramount. Learning with technologies emphatically supports that because it challenges students to think about the ways they’re learning; it can be more mindful and reflective, enables problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, etc… (we all know the script). If we provide an online ecology of resources then students can develop a repertoire of ways to choose to meet objectives – and construct residual portfolios of their activity (I know enough that we can get ahead of Germany on that score – we are cultivating a well planne, connected, enculturation of digital technology in FE/HE at a significant rate). 

In our summer conference, a colleague said we should train for warehouse jobs (a busy local economy). Yes, that and much, much more. During induction, I spoke with adults enrolling who want to leave those warehouses. Presumably everyone would agree that ABRs shouldn’t narrow and limit flexibility and options. Education must facilitate choice, not constrain it. Alongside vocational training, there must be competency and capability development. Funding for adult provision is also, clearly, crucial for continued progression and choice. It will be great if companies take some of that training on, as in Germany. That can alleviate funds for FE to widen scope, no? 

As any teacher, I want kids in my English lessons to learn to know they can do and achieve anything (with the applied effort). The vocational teachers who train the highly valuable skills and abilities want the same. The focus of the ABRs on technology is brilliant and necessary, but the focus on local contexts worries me slightly. In our immediate locale there are warehouses, and more besides – but, honestly, not much more. 

Further afield we have the media hubs of Manchester, tourism thrives, games design companies proliferate Liverpool, credit companies slightly further away, car manufacturing, you have agriculture and horticulture, retail Heaven, national parks, ports, docks, there’s a railway network to be built, the sports industry is prolific (as one female student acknowledged), and construction is as rampant as a bull on steroids in a shop full of delicately made porcelain artefacts. Not enough choice? Then how about investing more in local economies?

How local is local? The local context can be a threshold to wider achievement. Let’s continue to promote capability and aspiration first and foremost and not design choices of Alpha – Epsilon social stratas and mould them to people.

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