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The FE Professionalism War is over: now we win the peace…

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The extent to which professions and professionalism have always been mutable, subject to power relations, and intrinsically contested; is illustrated by the changing role of barbers between the medieval to the Georgian period. Before the year 1000 they were known by the name barbi-tonsorbius (due to their role in cutting monks’ funky hair-dos); and they undertook minor surgery – including tooth extraction, the lancing of boils, and bloodletting… thank God for our wonderful NHS.

By 1540 barbers and medical surgeons were united in a single guild by Henry VIII, the United Barber-Surgeons Company. However, the two professions began to separate, with an associated elevation in the professional standing of surgery including university educated status, until barbers were forbidden to carry out surgical procedures. George II formally separated the professions in 1745 with the establishment of the London College of Surgeons.

In FE the Institute for Learning (IfL) was created in 2002, and flagged as a democratic, practitioner-led professional body; but by 2013, after the “professionalism war” it had collapsed. The government’s decision to impose a membership fee had sparked the dispute, but wider professional concerns fanned the fire. At its root the dispute represented a discussion about what FE is for; and an emerging sense that a broader based, more expansive vision for FE professionalism was needed.

In the meantime the landscape of FE professionalism is increasingly fractured: the days of the IfL’s 200,000 strong professional membership are long gone; and its inheritor the Education and Training Foundation’s Society for Education and Training currently has a fraction of FE’s practitioners, compared to the ‘hey day’ of mandatory IfL membership.

In addition the College of Teaching, a professional body seeking to attract mainly school teachers, then confirmed its intention to recruit from within FE. Trade union concerns in relation to professionalism continue to be reflected in regular conference motions – which consistently argue that attempts to professionalise the FE sector too often adopt a deficit analysis, lack a democratic ethos, and promote managerialist, neoliberal policies.

Tutor Voices, a grassroots professional association, was established by UCU and NEU activist lecturers, and IfL rebels, to promote an explicitly democratic and rhizomatic approach to our professionalism; but as a voluntary, member organised body, was never a viable alternative to any government-funded and sanctioned competitor. (And, it should be conceded, there was by no means anything like unanimity re a collective Tutor Voices view of what an FE professional body should actually do… we had to ‘fudge it’… FE professionalism stands on shifting, contested ground – and that is how it should be, or else be consigned to history like the surgeon barbers?)

Does any of this churn actually matter to time-poor, demoralised FE tutors? One of the key stimuli for the creation of a professional body for FE was to raise the status of our profession, and thus lobby for better pay and conditions. That the FE profession is weak is clearly evidenced by the collapse in our salaries (accompanied by eye-watering SLT pay), since Incorporation. But perhaps just as critically, as a weak profession – i.e. tutors, FEC leaders, sector bodies, trade unions, etc. – we struggle to lobby for the fair treatment of our students and their communities. It is now time for UCU, the NEU, and other sister education unions to unite in a single, cradle-to-grave super union. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Annual Report on Education Spending in England (2018) reported that college income had dropped by 30% over the former decade, while spending on adult learning had dropped by a staggering 50%. Only unified have we a hope in hell of reversing FE’s decline (or am I just mad?).

The barbershop red and white pole remains as a reminder of the barbering profession’s erstwhile surgical role – and lost professional status. FE is at a point of existential crisis. In a not-so distant Tory budget the government allocated £420 million for potholes, and £0 for the 2.2 million people educated and trained in colleges each year. Unless there is an urgent rethink, there will no meaningful FE provision to cherish; and no profession to represent.

Of course, teaching in the post compulsory sector still has manifold joys… but let’s face it, working in FE in the past few years has also been a significant challenge for too many of us. Even in the majority of FECs run by our ethical Principal colleagues (who are under enormous pressure as we are, and are currently sharing our mental ill heath too); our working conditions have been undermined.

In addition, our professionalism has been progressively weakened by the inexplicable decision (which we thoughtlessly endorsed in the Professionalism War – a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one), to scrap mandatory teaching qualifications for lecturers. We have thus left too many of our new FE teacher comrades struggling in the early years of their careers. In addition, 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. There has also been insufficient attention paid to the wider well-being and professional learning of FE staff (other than the ETF’s high-quality CPL offerings); and we must be clear that this in not just an industrial relations issue: the working conditions of lecturers in the sector are the de facto learning environment of our students. Working in FE can be, too often, like wading through a saturated field, Wellington boots sticking in the cloying mud of excessive professional demands.

There are, though, tentative signs that as a profession we have had enough. There are examples of successful opposition by lecturers via regrettable but necessary industrial action in response to local attempts to undermine contracts; and such Nottingham UCU styled action could represent a model for national campaigns for the whole of FE.

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It is ultimately only through the reestablishment of national collective sector bargaining that we might see an end to the current postcode lottery in relation to pay and conditions. Whilst it is the case that the many progressive and supportive FE Principals and Governing Bodies always honour the AoC’s annual recommendations on lecturer salaries; 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 a welcome and explicit shift in the language and tone of the AoC in recent years, under the leadership of its shrewd CEO, David Hughes. Once regarded with justifiable suspicion by many FE professionals as a jolly club for Principals, it now articulates a vision for the whole sector (most clearly manifested in the #LoveFE campaign), which is inclusive of its front line workers.

Even the IfL’s inheritor, the Education and Training Foundation’s Society for Education and Training, is starting to evidence the green shoots of tentative, but genuinely democratic approaches to our collective professionalism. David Russell, the ETF CEO, is often misunderstood as a canny, cautious, Scots apparatchik. He is not; he is an egalitarian radical, who seeks to lead from within the parameters of our current (slightly reluctant?) collective take on professional bodies. I’d like him to lead from the professionalism front: it is time, I think, David.

There is, too, exemplary informal leadership in the broader FE sector; such as the UCU funded FE Transforms project. The exhausted soil of FE could, with a little husbandry, be transformed into a rich loam, a fertile medium for post compulsory learning.

FE colleagues: we have actually already done a considerable amount of FE’s spadework, and planted many seeds. We should actively, and with all of our collective trade union muscularity; support the pressure being exerted by the trade unions and the AoC on the government to establish fair FE funding (inclusive, of course, of the current striking FECs – in autumn 2021).

It is the urgent task for all of us who #LoveFE to ensure that the resulting harvest is reaped. The long term impact of the Covid crisis on the whole UK body politic is not yet clear; but it has been evident for a considerable time that FE is, as Emeritus Professor Frank Coffield puts it, a sick sector. Treating its workers with dignity, affording them adequate remuneration for their critically important work, and celebrating their professionalism (in whatever guise or habit), is part of further education’s cure.

I move.

Joel Petrie has worked in post compulsory education for over 20 years.

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 Tempestwas published by UCL IOE Press in autumn 2020. He is the Secretary of Trentham Productions (the inheritor of Trentham Books). Although he now works in HE, he has joined SET.

This piece is an edited version of the following chapter: Petrie, J. (2018). ‘Faith, apostasy and professionalism in FE,’ in Bennett, P. & Smith, R. (2018). Identity and Resistance in Further Education. London: Routledge.

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