From education to employment

FE’s Interregnum: the fightback begins

Dr Lou Mycroft is a nomadic educator, writer, and Thinking Environment facilitator.

The crisis exists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

Antonio Gramsci

Whenever I encounter Gramsci’s definition of ‘interregnum’ (literally = between reigns), written a hundred years ago between two world wars, it shakes me. It is so relatable. Me and Gramsci go back about ten years now…ten years of interregnum, waiting for the new to be born.

Ten years ago, or a shade less, I emerged from my own interregnum and encountered myself as a thinker. Riding high on the euphoria of London 2012 I set out to imagine new worlds, only to find the old one confronting crisis after crisis. How long can we sustain our energy for affirmative change?

We certainly can’t endure this alone

In FE we’re facing yet another crisis – hot on the heels of Covid, we can’t afford to pay the gas bill. And yet none of the usual imperatives are easing off. Inspection paused for about five minutes during Covid and the global pandemic isn’t reason enough to justify the holes in our data. Not only are our students struggling financially, our staff are too.

In their fabulous book ‘The Prepared Leader‘ (also check out their Dare to Lead podcasts with Brené Brown), Erika James and Lynn Perry Wooten refer to ‘cycles of panic and neglect’, a term coined by former world bank president Jim Yong Kim to describe a typical leadership response to crisis. FE experiences (funding) crisis after (policy) crisis but how much do we really learn for the next time? James and Wooten argue that crises will and do continue to happen. And they will continue to floor us, if we don’t learn from them for the next time.

FE goes through crisis after crisis and how much do we really learn?

We may be punch drunk after the past few years but we’re still not quite getting it: it’s time to recognise our connectedness with global emergency: economic inequalities, racial reckoning, climate emergency. Alongside global health inequality these are the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse*.

What is happening in colleges and other education providers – in England, at least – is that the twin imperatives of financial pressure and inspection are sucking up all the oxygen. Asking a college principal to deal with what’s on their plate and also consider the existential global threat of climate extinction is mind-blowing. I’m having to restrain myself from putting my head in my hands even as I’m writing this – and I don’t have anything like that level of responsibility. There is no more capacity to think about an even bigger threat. And that’s a tragedy in itself.

The answer is found – as it always is – in community. We need our infrastructure organisations, our big thinkers, our changemakers, our visionary academics (not the boring ones) to find each other and get working on new possibilities. The time for refusing access to thinking spaces based on hierarchy is at an end. James and Wooten write about the NHS London crisis response at the start of Covid. Using video conferencing technology, they got their changemakers into a thinking space and charged them with keeping the NHS running. The result was a ‘focus factory’ approach, where high-volume, low-risk operations were concentrated in one space, with minimal bureaucracy. This is how my step-mum got her bone marrow transplant in the spring of 2020. And it wouldn’t have been possible without bringing thinkers together across lines of rank and role.

It’s happening.

We’ve got former ETF Chief Executive David Russell‘s ‘self-improving FE’ project, bringing together minds from every stretch and level of FE. Huge players like AoC investing in the thought leadership of practitioners through Think Further. The Black Leadership Group (BLG) going into partnership with ETF. And nomads like me getting “where watter can’t“, as we say in Yorkshire, contributing ideas and pulling the threads together into professional learning communities that can spread new ideas like bluebell wildfire. We’re doing the reckoning. Finally, we’re doing the work.

We need a critical mass of thinkers who can resist the noise, panic (and neglect) of crisis response, to carve out time to “listen to the whispers” of changemaking possibilities (kudos to Karen Walrond for that phrase). We have to recognise where the system is broken and take responsibility for fixing it up. Yes we can kick the can up the road, but where has that got us thus far? We are where we are. Time to face it and mobilise – together.

By Dr Lou Mycroft, a nomadic educator, writer, and Thinking Environment facilitator.

*I do love the word ‘pestilence’. But I just couldn’t work it in.

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