From education to employment

How Grimm is Further Education?

Joel Petrie, Secretary, Trentham Books

Once upon a time…

This book was conceived in 2012, the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm brothers’ Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), which included the stories of Cinderella and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

2012 also marked the twentieth anniversary of the Further and Higher Education Act which triggered the incorporation of colleges; arguably the most radical structural and political shift in FE in a generation.

There has been a noteworthy degree of serendipity around this book’s genesis, perhaps appropriately, given the word derives from the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip. Ball and Olmedo advocate a courageous refusal of the mundane, a need to delimit ethical spaces “in relations with others who share the same discomforts.

These others might not be available in the staffroom but they may be within everyday social meetings, union meetings or on social media sites,” (Ball & Olmedo, p.94). The book’s contributors engaged in just such conversations and debates in that increasingly marginal space the college staff room; at wider academic and trade union conferences; and on web discussion boards. What linked all of these professional dialogues was a mistrust and distaste for the metaphor of Cinderella to describe FE.

The factor that ultimately sparked the project to life was a misdialed telephone call from Professor Frank Coffield (I had arranged with him to give a keynote at my college shortly before). Once Frank had established who I was, or rather who I was not, I told him about our nascent idea for a book that could destroy the idea of FE as the Cinderella sector.

‘Good,’ said Frank. ‘I’ve always despised the parallel; I’ll write the preface for you; and introduce you to Gillian Klein of Trentham Books.’

We were, metaphorically speaking, invited to the ball…

The Cinderella Sector

The now dominant fairy tale metaphor for FE, as the Cinderella sector, is generally attributed to Kenneth Baker, Minister of Education under Margaret Thatcher, who in 1989 identified a lack of government focus on the sector.

Of course Thatcher herself had been the Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1970-74, an era of educational initiatives now largely forgotten in the public consciousness except for her fairy-tale villainy as the notorious children’s “Milk Snatcher.” Subsequent education ministers from the Left and the Right have been equally enthusiastic fairy story tellers.

Alan Johnson argued that New Labour had “buried forever the understandable description of further education as the ‘Cinderella’ of the education world. This debilitating perception should never have been allowed to take root…Cinderella is now dressed and ready to go to the ball. And the coach will not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”

David Blunkett continued the positive spin by suggesting that whilst the “sector was once regarded as the Cinderella sector,” the perception has changed, “and we now have a sector that is growing not only in confidence but also in achievement.”

The Skills Minister John Hayes identified “clear signs that something I’ve always hoped for is starting to happen, FE and skills are no longer the Cinderella they were once described as.”

Most recently the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove donned his Fairy Godmother wings to celebrate that “FE colleges do wonderful work. For too long, they have been Cinderellas, but under this government they are at last going to the ball.”

There is in fact a significantly earlier governmental use of the Cinderella metaphor to describe vocational and further education.

In 1935 Oliver Stanley, the President of the Board of Education, was quoted in the Glasgow Herald: “It has, I believe, been an old complaint among many concerned with the technical side of education that that part of education has been the Cinderella. Well, the Government is determined that even if there was any truth in that in the past, there shall be none in the future.”

Clearly the Cinderella metaphor has become deeply embedded in the political discourse about FE.

Wider sector grandees, the academy, the press and policy apparatchiks have not been immune to the allure of Cinderella’s twinkling glass slipper either. Some have used the metaphor to implicitly suggest a sectoral deficit, whilst others have suggested that FE’s prince has come at last. A few illustrative examples are highlighted here.

Sir Andrew Foster, six years after his review of the future of FE, reflected that whilst he had found a sector that was delivering crucial economic and social benefits to individuals and communities, it struggled to articulate its value within a wider policy context: it was a Cinderella sector that did itself no favours by moaning.

Similarly Dr Lynne Sedgmore CBE (former Principal and CEO of CEL and the 157 Group), argued that there “were always deficit metaphors for FE: middle child, Cinderella, the bit that filled the gap between schools and universities,” but celebrated a new “fabulous metaphor which is colleges as the dynamic nucleus of the community.”

Gleeson, Davies and Wheeler suggest that there is a powerful ideology of uniqueness about FE rendering it unified only by being different: arguing that it is the, not a, Cinderella service.

Randle and Brady highlight a paucity of research about a Cinderella sector that is all but invisible in the press; while Kerfoot and Whitehead too employ the fairy tale metaphor to describe how FE’s absence from the public eye enabled successive Conservative administrations to subject it to a market-managed ideology.

Bathmaker and Avis argue that FE in the 1990s played an increasingly significant role in both the Conservative and New Labour lifelong learning agenda, reflected in the Kennedy Report (1997) which attempted to bring the FE sector out of its Cinderella role, and to establish FE colleges as central to adult lifelong learning policies.

A leading light of the Institute for Learning (IfL) raged against the dying of that professional body’s mandatory status, claiming it had helped the Cinderella sector to shine, (Times Educational Supplement, 19/04/11); while another press commentator on the fallout of the sector’s professionalism debate suggested that the revocation of the Further Education Workforce Regulations illustrated a sectoral shift towards absurdity: from Cinderella to Alice in Wonderland, (FE Week 07/06/13).

The Cinderella story we are now familiar with is a sanitized and Disneyfied version of that published by the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the most shockingly unfamiliar aspect of the original story relates to the bullying and victimization of Cinderella, and the impairment visited on her step siblings: Cinderella’s sisters are both in turn persuaded by their mother to amputate parts of their feet to fraudulently squeeze into Cinderella’s lost slipper and claim the hand of the prince; only when they begin to hemorrhage does he realize his error. Later the sisters are further tortured for their attempt to gain favour; and for their wickedness and falsehood both are blinded by Cinderella’s bird familiars.

The FE sector itself has been described in terms of sickness and impairment. Coffield refers to a hole in the heart of FE typified by a government concern to improve the quality of everyone’s learning without any interest in learning itself. More recently he has proposed that FE suffers from bulimia academica, typified by stress, nausea, self-disgust; and an inefficient, ineffective testing regime that is purgative and emetic. Lumby and Samier argue that the concentration of power in senior posts with an associated obsessive control is a bureaupathological trait that can infect administrations.

Elsewhere Anderson et al argued that little is consistent in FE except constant change: it is a sector with ‘IADHD’ – institutional attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. In relation to changes in funding Mager argues that the sector is moving towards a bi-polar system of provision for sixteen to eighteen year olds and adults.

Bush and Middlewood highlight a politically motivated climate spawning constant innovation where pleas for a period of stability fall on deaf ears; and Fullen suggests that Principals are blinded by their own vision. For Ball there is a structural schizophrenia of values and purposes in which only outputs have value, with beliefs representing an increasingly unimportant and displaced discourse.

Senge, describing organisations more widely, famously argued that they learn poorly and have as a result fundamental learning disabilities which operate despite the clear talents and commitment of employees. Bolden describes the lived experience of the HE lecturer as one of dislocation, disconnection, disengagement, dissipation, distance and dysfunctionality; perhaps for FE teachers disablement is equally applicable.

Coffield has highlighted that the atmosphere in the FE sector is increasingly described by lecturers as toxic; and educational metaphors such as Cinderella for the FE sector contribute to this toxicity:

“Metaphors function both positively and negatively. They have the power to help create meaning and understanding and to improve how we lead. They also have the power to manipulate, to shut down thinking, to deflect creativity, and to harm. Their very ubiquity, their indispensableness, lends metaphors great power,” (Lumby & English, 2010: 3)

According to Lumby and English metaphors not only describe leadership, they embody the very act of leading. Cinderella functions as a toxic, dead metaphor for the sector, filling the gap where real cognition and analysis of FE might take place. But we need to go further than simply identifying Cinderella as a dead metaphor; we need to kill off the notion completely by promoting the dance of the princesses; and this attempt to change the metaphor is a collective act of sectoral leadership.

Or as Neil Gaiman puts it, paraphrasing Chesterton: fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

The Dancing Princesses Sector: Any other life would be a lie

In the Brothers Grimm original story the twelve dancing princesses are locked in their bedroom every evening by their tyrannical father, the king; but they escape through a secret tunnel to dance all night.

As a metaphor for teaching in FE this tale is far more celebratory and resonant than Cinderella: it suggests the possibility of subversion, of autonomy in teaching and learning, and a collective rather than individualist notion of professionalism; even within repressive contexts. In the story the king’s suspicions are aroused by the princesses’ dancing slippers which are worn through every morning.

He commissions a series of princes to spy on the dancers, but all are fooled into drinking a sleeping draft and lose their heads. Ultimately they are betrayed and exposed by an itinerant soldier who pretends to drink the potion, and observes their illicit dancing in a magical glade, with the assistance of a cloak of invisibility. The soldier marries one of the princesses as his reward, and the implication is that the twelve princesses’ nocturnal freedom is lost, the dance is at an end, and all will be married off.

The story of the dancing princesses is thus not unproblematic, but we are arguing for a way of thinking about resistance and freedom advocated by Ball and Olmedo in their analysis of Foucault: liberty is “created in and through acts of resistance and processes of self-definition,” whilst at the same time recognizing “the possibilities of power, the fragility of freedom and the limits of contingency and domination, while seeking a space within them,” (Ball & Olmedo, p.94).

It is also possible to speculate on the possibility of further attempts at liberty and freedom from patriarchy by the princesses, as Jeanette Winterson did in Sexing the Cherry. In this novel the princesses are introduced to the novel’s protagonist later in their lives: they have lived happily ever after, but not with their prince husbands. Three princesses have left their princes, while five murdered their husbands.

One has fallen in love with a mermaid and lives with her in a well, while one husband turned out to be a woman. The eleventh kissed her husband and turned him into a frog, before becoming Rapunzel’s witch lover. The final twelfth princess absconded from her wedding and appears to have escaped from the story altogether – to continue the dance:

“Their stories ended, the twelve dancing princesses invited me to spend the night as their guest.

‘Someone is missing,’ I said. ‘There are only eleven of you and I have only heard eleven stories. Where is your sister?’

They looked at one another, then the eldest said, ‘Our youngest sister is not here… She was, of all of us, the best dancer, the one who made her body into shapes we could not follow. She did it for pleasure, but there was something more for her; she did it because any other life would be a lie. She didn’t burn in secret with a passion she could not express; she shone.'” (Winterson, 1990: 60)

It is this sense of dance embodying honesty that we wish to celebrate; specifically as an aspect of our shared professionalism in a community of discovery in which anything other than principled dissent would be a lie; and where sector leaders should “grow by being challenged, and institutions become mature when members at all levels are able to tell truth to power.” (Coffield & Williamson, 2012: 50).

Coffield identifies six potential professional responses by individuals and colleges to destructive, extreme and confrontational educational environments:

  1. The first is compliance: a self-preservatory retreat into safe teaching methods and acquiescence with established institutional practices.
  2. He typifies the second as strategic or cynical compliance: where professionals covertly bend the rules to protect students, colleagues and the institution from negatives change.
  3. The third approach is survivalism, where colleges maximize funding by prioritizing targets above all else, and slavishly follow Ofsted’s inspection criteria to pursue ‘outstanding’ status.
  4. Resistance or subversion may follow when policies or practices so offend professionals’ “basic values that they retreat into whatever spaces they can find, from where they can reassert and celebrate their autonomy,” (Coffield, 2014: 5).
  5. The exit response is to leave FE teaching altogether through early retirement, stress-related impairment, changing career, resignation or promotion to management. This strategy might also cover what Coffield calls “internal exile” – the small minority of teachers who react to relentless pressures by simply going through the motions.
  6. The final, and most positive response, is to become powerful, democratic professionals.

Despite the tightening parameters of working in FE, Coffield argues that lecturers “will become only as powerful and democratic as the culture within which they work allows them to be; or, to put the point more positively, they will become as powerful and democratic as those educators can achieve through constant, collective struggle,” (Coffield, 2014:11).

It has been our collective aspiration that this book (and the two sequels that follow) represent a powerful, democratic, professional response to the sector’s ills. Further, we follow Deleuze’s maxim that to write is to struggle and resist, to write is to become, to write is to draw a map; and we hope that others will travel in the spaces that the book begins to explore. Bill Williamson has suggested that if social change danced to the tunes of our best ideas we would now be living in paradise, but in recent decades the most effective change agents both generally and in education have been ideologists of the free market.

We suggest that this ideological transformation can and should be challenged. Sir Ken Robinson argued for dedicating equal time in the curriculum to dance and maths, and whilst this might at first glance appear nonsensical his insistence on the importance of dance and creativity exposes the limits of curriculum and the need for new educational narratives. For Salman Rushdie, an author with an acute awareness of the potentially dangerous power of stories, unreality may be the only weapon with which reality can be smashed; so that it may subsequently be reconstructed. To reclaim what has been lost in FE we may first need to create stories, invisible spaces, and an FE sector of the mind.

CPL Churn

Jameson and Hillier point out that FE is “vastly under-researched in comparison with the data potentially available to it” which contributes to it being overlooked and undervalued; and that the lack of opportunity and support for “research, reflection and publication by its practitioners” must be redressed (p.3).

Similarly, Coffield has criticized the lack of research evidence in FE, asking where else would you find a £10 billion industry with no research. Whilst academic publication is by no means the sole measure of sectoral research it is notable that both the Journal of Further and Higher Education and Research in Post-Compulsory Education, while focusing on FE, rarely have more than a small proportion of authors from the sector: if FE is researched and (crucially) published at all it tends to be from within HE.

It could be argued that scholarly activity is less central to the working life of FE lecturers, and that a greater emphasis on high quality staff development should be in evidence. However the account of the history of FE development agencies given by Huddleston and Unwin suggests otherwise. In the period since incorporation such bodies have metamorphosed with dizzying regularity according to the whims of successive governments:

  • the Further Education Staff College (FESC) and Further Education Unit (FEU) merged into the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA);
  • this in turn became the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), which itself evolved into the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) and the Learning and Skills Network (LSN);
  • followed by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS).

Educational ministers of all political persuasions, like frenetic fairy godmothers, magically transformed FE’s professional bodies from pumpkins into carriages, with little apparent regard for sectoral continuity or professional developmental stability.

In the meantime there was a laudable attempt to establish a democratic professional body which aimed to be run by the members for the members, but which failed to even mention educators in its own name – the Institute for Learning (IfL).

The IfL leadership’s Pythonesque insistence that the hemorrhaging of sectoral confidence had just been a flesh wound once members were expected to fund the body via fees was ultimately consistent with its longstanding organisational learning difficulties, and like all of these other sector bodies it has disappeared.

The Further Education Guild (which had something of a fairy tale or medievalist ring to it) which was to take up some of the functions of the IfL had hardly impinged on the sector’s conscious before transmogrifying into the more totalitarian sounding Education and Training Foundation (ETF).

It should be noted, however, that the ETF has won over many FE sceptics, scarred by the IfL debacle, under its CEO David Russell’s deft leadership. It is perhaps appropriate that Wolverhampton University’s Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education enjoyed the acronym CRADLE: the sector urgently requires a more mature, consistent and genuinely developmental approach to staff development and research based practice.

And they all taught happily ever after?

Fairy stories can be both deadly and deadly serious. In their 2012 trial the feminist punk dissidents Pussy Riot cited the avant-garde writer Vvedensky as a key influence. Vvedensky faced accusations of writing anti-Soviet children’s stories. Like too many current FE professionals (especially trade union activists), under the minority of toxic Principalships, Vvedensky was ‘disappeared’: he was arrested and died during Stalin’s Great Purge. In Svetlana Gouzenko’s memoire of her Soviet childhood she describes how her class produced a play in which fairy tale characters including Cinderella were condemned as unfit for Soviet children and exiled, only for the distressed assembled children to cry for their pardon and return.

Zipes suggests that power and oppression are the key concerns of folktales – whilst they may not unequivocally seek a revolution of social relations they nevertheless have a utopian aspect in the imaginative portrayal of class conflict, and are rooted in the “desire to overcome oppression and change society,” (Zipes, p. 8). The utopian dancing of the twelve princesses is a worthy metaphor for FE teaching and a sector that continues, despite the increasingly toxic, neoliberal educational climate, to offer second chances, lifelong learning, and to transform lives.

So can FE live happily ever after?

If the sector is to be Grimm it should be so on our own terms; as powerful, democratic, dancing professionals. Warner argues that fairy tales can act as fifth columnists; defying existing structures while proposing alternatives.

They offer “magical metamorphoses to the one who opens the door, who passes on what was found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. The faculty of wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due.” (Warner, p. 418).

It is time for the sector of the dancing princesses to have its due, and for FE’s cinders to be reignited.

Dance with us, FE. We are asking…

Joel Petrie, Secretary, Trentham Books

Joel Petrie has worked in post compulsory education as a lecturer, teacher educator, manager and trade unionist for longer than he cares to admit. He is currently working at Liverpool John Moores University, while completing an Educational Doctorate at Huddersfield University on leadership in FE. He is the Secretary of Trentham Books. He cannot dance (but If Spiritualized plays he can be persuaded…).


Ball, S. & Olmedo, A. (2013). Care of the self, resistance and subjectivity under neoliberal governmentalities. Critical Studies in Education. 54:1, 85-96

Coffield, F. et al (2014). Beyond Bulimic Learning – improving teaching in further education. Institute of Education Press, University of London

Coffield, F. & Williamson, B. (2012). From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: The Democratic Route, Institute of Education Press, University of London

Jameson, J. & Hillier, Y. (2003). Researching Post-Compulsory Education. Continuum, London

Lumby, J. & English, F. (2010). Leadership as Lunacy: And Other Metaphors for Educational Leadership. Sage, London

Warner, M. (1994). From the beast to the blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers. Chatto & Windus, London

Winterson, J. (1990). Sexing the Cherry. Vintage, London

Zipes, J. (2006). Fairy tales and the art of subversion (2nd edition). Routledge, Abingdon

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