Teaching in the post compulsory sector has manifold joys; but let’s face it, working in FE in the past few years has also been a bit crap for too many of us: salaries since incorporation have collapsed, and working conditions have been progressively undermined.
Too many, especially younger tutors, are employed long-term on temporary, insecure contracts: highly qualified and committed professionals should not face anxiety about their shopping bills over summer closures, or indeed when their precarious employment may be curtailed, such as during the current coronavirus crisis. There has also been insufficient attention paid to the wider well-being and professional learning of FE staff, and we must be clear that this in not just an industrial relations issue: the inadequate working conditions of lecturers in the sector are the de facto learning environment of our students.
There are tentative signs that as a profession we have had enough: the recent successful UCU strike action at Nottingham College was a response to local attempts to undermine lecturers’ contracts, but also represents a model for national campaigns for the whole of FE. However, ultimately only the reestablishment of national collective sector bargaining will end the current postcode lottery: many progressive and supportive FE Principals and Governing Bodies have always honoured the AoC’s recommendations on lecturer salaries, but in too many instances FE college leaders have failed in this most basic of their moral duties to their staff.
It is time for decisions on FE pay and contractual conditions to be taken out of their hands; colleges should no more be the personal fiefdoms of the small minority of FE leaders who fail to act with ethicality. It should be noted, in this context, that there has been an explicit shift in the language and tone of the AoC under David Hughes’ leadership: as an organisation its focus has shifted from being a club for Principals, to articulating a vision for the whole sector (most clearly manifested in the #LoveFE campaign), which is inclusive of its front line workers.
There is, too, exemplary informal leadership in the broader FE sector; such as the FE Transforms project. It should be remembered that in the long run crap can transform into a rich loam, a fertile medium for post compulsory learning. FE Transforms has done a considerable amount of FE’s spadework, and planted many seeds; in support of the pressure being exerted by the trade unions and the AoC on the government to establish fair FE funding. Perhaps during the current imposed hiatus, it is the task for all of us who love FE to ensure that the resulting harvest is reaped.
The long term impact of the coronavirus on the whole body politic is not yet clear; but it has been evident for a considerable time that FE is, as Frank Coffield puts it, a sick sector. Treating its workers with dignity, and affording them adequate remuneration for their critically important work, is part of the cure.
Joel Petrie worked in post compulsory education for over 20 years, and is now a self-employed FE consultant. With Maire Daley and Professor Kevin Orr he co-edited Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and its sequel The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE. The third in the Dancing Princesses trilogy – Caliban’s Dance: FE after the Tempest – will be published by UCL Press in summer 2020.
Curtis Tappenden is a Senior Lecturer in FE at the University for the Creative Arts, and an editorial artist for a national newspaper. The illustration accompanies the quote by Baudrillard in The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE).