Post-16 education #FE sector #Cinderella and all that….why teach there?

 I was recently asked why anyone would choose to work in the FE sector of education. The implications behind that question reinforce the prejudice of many and the misplaced snobbery and ignorance that I think exists in response to Further Education. This particular sector of education has always been coined as the ‘Cinderella’ sector. Let’s think about that. Cinderella was treated appallingly. She suffered from cruel neglect, she was subjected to punishing work for which she was paid the basic means of living ( roof over head, food, water) she was isolated and overpowered by a bullying and hostile ‘family’. Nevertheless she kept on going, she had an indomitable spirit and an imagination that sustained her.  ‘Magic’ saved her – she is provided with a fairy godmother who transforms her life. She was given a golden carriage, an amazing vehicle for escape from such a tawdry and miserable life and then taken to a lavish party full of rich people. Even then things go a bit wrong as she stayed too late at the ‘party’ (uninvited guest) but ,magically, she is rescued by someone who was rich and who recognised and enabled her to emerge from her life of unforgiving hard work and invisibility. And so. We can see here that money alone is not enough, it’s the recognition of who you are that also counts. Cinderella was recognised when someone took the  trouble and time to seek her out.  And of course the power of love was a driving force. But after a lifetime of being ‘abandoned’. Yes. I can see some parallels with FE.

The Inbetweeners
Like the many that it serves, a lot of work in FE is all too often invisible and undervalued by wider society. Just look at the quality, quantity and level of attention it is given over the years. Not just by Governments, Education Ministers, M.P.s and the like. Schools and universities are easier to address. FE is not so ‘tidy’. We are the ‘inbetweeners’ in education who often find ourselves working with the marginalised, the ‘returners’ who were – for a range of complex reasons- ill- served by primary and secondary education processes and have for some long time deserted the world of ‘education’. Institutionalised ‘formal’ education did not succeed. Instead it provided feelings of:’ not good enough’, a weight of ‘failure’, of not being recognised or part of ‘success’- in the narrow definition of success that is found in the ever- decreasing circles and limited imposed provision that is the secondary curriculum ‘offer’. Formal secondary education has served to be counter-productive in significant numbers of cases ( not the fault of those working in secondary education I might add- but the fault of an imposed system that is evidently not fit for purpose for all. This adds further evidence, click here : https://www.tes.com/news/high-price-paid-narrowly-missing-c-grade-spelled-out).

A lot who come to Further Education come as ‘Cinderellas’. There are legions of examples of ‘success’ stories of those who have discovered what it’s like to experience education in a place where your skills and strengths can be recognised, where you can gain a genuine sense of belonging. Where at last a different kind of meaning and measure is put to your life. So, yes, FE ‘rescues’, ‘salvages’ from the wreckage of the pre-16 educational experience. FE ‘enables’, finds so many positive, creative and hopeful ways for those to move their lives on in their own found ‘golden carriages’ of employment and/or H.E. FE institutions fill in the uncomfortable gaps that have been acquired (e.g. English & maths); we address what is needed as much as we can to provide a positive experience of education that is relevant, useful and inspiring. We give first chances to so many to learn ‘further’ skills, knowledge and understanding from a fantastic range of courses. We also give second, third, fourth ‘chances’ of getting to that party and being ‘found’, recognised and indeed loved. But unfortunately we are more the impoverished ‘Prince’, constantly seeking more money for his purse.

Who works in FE and why?
Why would you work in FE. Oh hang on a minute – in schools as part of the mainstream curriculum they don’t teach discrete qualification accredited  and ‘packaged’ courses such as: Brickwork, Motor Vehicle Maintenance, Electrical Installation, Plumbing, Carpentry and Joinery, Hairdressing and Beauty Therapy, Hospitality and Catering, Business and Administration, Public Services, Health and Social Care, Child Care, Performing Arts – to name a few on offer at FE Colleges up and down the country. So, if you are part of any of those professions would you not be keen to pass on your trade to others, to teach them from your own ‘hands on’ experience – the tools of your trade? And would you not be proud to do so? Of course and yes. So fortunately for us we have dedicated experts in their field who work in FE colleges passing on their skills and knowledge so that the rest of us can benefit from getting our cars fixed, our housing built and sorted in terms of plumbing, wiring, joinery, brickwork , we can enjoy meals prepared and expertly cooked in restaurants, we can be confident in getting our hair cut in all kinds of fashion informed ways and we can all gain pleasure from the relaxation that Health Spas bring, we can enjoy the theatre and all the incredible theatrical staging systems entailed. Not to mention everything else gained by society from such provision. At FE we provide students with the first major educational steps of many towards a ‘trade’, a profession, a ‘career’ – an exciting route of positive prospects …we simultaneously provide, embedded into our fibre, educational steps towards furthering a deeper sense of ‘self-belief’ and focussed purpose in our students. Why then is FE so under valued ? It beggars belief.

So, why is it that FE is in the shadows of education debates and considerations? Why is it economically undervalued ? When it is so important to our communities. As anyone who cares to look will know, there is too much ‘out there’ of ‘wasted’ and ‘wasting’ energy and potential who would be well served by their local FE college. Those who care to look and see will know that such situations can be redirected to opportunities that will enable something more to be made of  lives other than a sense of futility, boredom, frustration, anger. That such situations can be redirected to provide the wherewithal to move out of such ‘wasting’. Further Education can lift a life harrowed by depression, boredom, anger, or the extremes of a life of crime and violence… We all know change can and does come. Talk to any FE teacher, cf: https://theenglishcuriosityshop.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/an-english-teachers-classroom-speaking-listening-fishing-family-youth-work/  Read important work by colleagues such as Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith https://feweek.co.uk/2017/12/16/further-education-transforms-lives-and-we-must-protect-it/  find out more by visiting: http://transforminglives.web.ucu.org.uk/

I work with those who make it to FE. I feel the lost potential when I meet students at the beginning of every year. Sitting in my English classes. I witness the growing confidence that goes along with providing a stable environment, routine, discipline and  an environment that is about possibility, constructive feedback and a sense of  progressing success – tentative at first-  but then there is that brilliant realisation of  ‘yes I can‘. Huge rewards are always felt when qualifications are at last secured. They got there. They achieved. And they are quietly proud. They got there because they encountered an educational institution that believed they could get there and that provided them with the teacher expertise to enable them. They got recognition and acknowledgement. They found their, albeit impoverished, ‘Prince’. This is precisely why FE needs to be given so much more. So that it can grow and flourish where currently it is suffering from severe wounds, gashed as it is by brutal cut-backs and worrying Governmental neglect. Could this be precisely because we work in a field of which there is much ignorance and we serve significant numbers who are too often neglected of consideration by power structures dominated by people from a narrow field of limited experience, from the more ‘privileged ‘ circles in our society who in all probability do not know ‘Cinderellas’ other than maybe as their own convenient  ‘servants’? Those who have the power to implement positive and urgently required change need to include more of us out there in the ‘field’, who have the expertise and can inform existing blinkered ignorance. Then our society will become more productive, less angry and certainly less disenchanted.   

Why did I choose to dedicate my teaching life to Further Education? I chose to work in post-compulsory education as I wanted to devote my energies to those who were choosing education rather than having education forced upon them. Sadly, in recent years, I have found myself, in some aspects of my work, working in the latter context – as an English teacher – but it’s still very much an invaluable place to work (see all of the above…).

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