At the college summer conference, this year the staff were painted the grim picture of the future of FE and funding in stark detail. Realistic in tone (it certainly wasn’t your typical motivational or ‘have a stress-free, student-free summer and chill’ conference) it reinforced our awareness of the current crisis of FE. Perhaps it was to bump along those voluntary redundancies; if so, it worked. We’re a morally-devastated workforce, probably nationally as well as locally: continually challenged either economically (both as institutions and personnel) with insecurity or in terms of questions regarding our value.
We’re also dynamic problem-solvers, adaptive and resilient as a result.
One thing that I recall was the passively-aggressive threat by the consultant speaker (help ma Boab…), explaining the (near)future possibility of “other stakeholders” entering our space because the Tories do love competition. He suggested sixth forms, academies, UTCs and threw in Asda for good measure. Perhaps this competition is good for FE as it makes us sit up and wise up to the free market of education. I’m starting to see this in effect on linkedin.
Providers are starting to come in many shapes and forms and we have to consider the consequences for costs and staff. Greggs the “Baker” wants to deliver catering courses? They have the resources, they have the employability-skills knowledge, and they even have the golden egg of employment outcome. They can bid for our funding. And they will only look at profit margins, which will inevitably fall on staffing costs: ‘teachers want how much holiday? They want how much pay? They want to strike??’
How do we compete? This is the central question of our times in the public sector. In that tired discussion about teachers being replaced by technology, my doctorate supervisor said to me three years ago: ‘you have to make yourself redundant-proof’. He’s right, and one way of doing this is to think about what our courses and programmes offer that Asda and Chicken Cottage can’t.
Learning technologies play a huge part in this, because to compete we have to attract potential learners and offer them full, rounded educational experiences. Never mind the Area Based Reviews that may narrow our scope, a course in catering, for example, should offer transferable skill-sets that enable students to change careers or broaden their palettes. We should be informed by pedagogies that extend beyond the vocational; we are often dealing in FE with people from broken social contexts, at risk of slipping into awful circumstance. Colleges must offer students experience.
Equally (and a little contrarily to all this talk of loyalty), I sometimes tell younger staff coming in to the profession that it’s worthwhile considering a second career option – particularly as so many are on part-time contracts. Have something in back-up, or even as a side-line. Grim realities; grim austere times.
Other necessities for us as a sector and workforce:
- Celebrate achievements – the best evidence of our impact
- Make noise about the erosion of rights – keep the unions strong
- Be innovative and enrichen our students’ lives, not just through main college courses but wherever possible
- Management needs to recognise and secure an expert workforce, supporting and rewarding loyalty
- Don’t let others define who we are and the value of what we do
- Finally, don’t eat at Greggs (you know that anyway).
And what else? Well, somehow, we often seem to be accountable for the lack of employment opportunities students find for themselves. This is patently daft. I would really like to see FE develop a network of cottage industries for small business. The hubs are there for this and instead of relying on there being jobs from big businesses, let’s encourage that mythical Tory innovation – you know, the one that comes from a place without economic privilege and sees innovation flourish through supportive communities.
So go local, reject Asda, support small businesses and work out how it can be done, because it’ll pay back loyalty points in the end.