From education to employment

The language of FE or what does it all really mean?

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

One of the many headed problems that the hydra of FE has is to do with the language that it uses and is used about it. There are plenty of debates about what terms mean, such as: professionalism (dual or not?), skills (pre-entry, basic, or employability), institutions (too many to mention) and roles (ditto) – all of them snapping with their many teeth for whoever dares address them. So, it is with some trepidation that I reflect on the language of FE itself…

Some of the tropes or themes that one finds in further education is that it is a sector that ‘transforms’ learners, that is, it moves learners from being in a passive or frustrated educational place to one in which they find an active or meaningful purpose in employment or even life. It is a term that was used most often by ATL members in a survey a few years ago when describing what the primary motivation was for their work. It is a title of an upcoming conference on FE, the second in a series held at BCU beginning in 2016 (which was sponsored by ATL/ETF and UCU). It is also a key term in the work of Vicky Duckworth who kindly and generously gave a presentation at ATL’s annual FE conference in Liverpool last year. It is a powerful and, in turn, empowering, term. It addresses a very broad experience of learners and practitioners that goes beyond data, qualifications, lesson observations. It is in the background of Ofsted, but the foreground of those who do the work and those who experience it. And that’s a problem of course, because it means that there isn’t adequate support (even understanding) or acknowledgement of the actual experience of practitioners and learners. But the term has a sting in the tale for those who use it today for there is no clear and obvious way it can be supported, precisely because it is primarily experiential. In language use we would be dangerously close to developing a private language if we insisted that ‘transformation’ means what we each say it means. To dispel that limitation we would need to say what it wasn’t and who wasn’t doing it. I will leave that to others to define. But you see the problem. It’s what I will refer to as the Humpty Dumpty problem below.

One day I’ll grow and be a Lecturer, trainer, assessor, tutor…
The perennial debate about ‘who’ is doing what in the FE sector follows on from the first term weconsidered. Who transforms learners? Is it everybody in every role or is it just some? Are there key people who are responsible or is it just part of the FE ethos? Maybe, the ethos of FE conceals as much as it reveals here. Maybe the transformation of the learner need a transformation in the job roles we currently use? The reason for this challenge is that the proximate policy fields of schools and universities have ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’ as the defined role that the public understands. The more distal policy fields of industry have assessor and trainer – but as government policy brings the latter more and more into the language of FE, we move from transformation to competency or performance and productivity. Academics are struggling with this space of the educator in FE and little wonder (as is the Teach Too project run from the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Post-14 Education and Work). But, until we answer ‘who is doing what,’ we will struggle with what I am going to call public intelligibility and that is strategically significant for the sector (see below).

Another very topical concept at the moment is ‘scholarship’ and that’s being currently explored and developed by John Lea, in the AoC headed HE in FE project. This term goes back to pre-incorporation days, and was in lecturer contracts as part of their professional development and role. So, it’s interesting to see its return now, particularly when put into a specific FE focus for the 21st Century.

What the HE in FE project is setting out to do is develop the sort of scholarship that goes on in FE colleges, looking at the specificity of FE research, scholarship, development. This could definitely further the clarity of language we use about FE and reveal what FE does and what it does uniquely, but only at the level of HE (around 11% of provision). The project takes the work of Charles Boyer as a point of departure for seeing how FE scholarship emerges and, more to the point, how it can develop its local capacity.

The importation of terms this time is not from industry but from HE research into ‘scholarship’. That’s important because we are here reflecting on what is a robust and researched concept and not just general practice (industry) or an important but nebulous term (transformative).

Diversity in all things
Another notion that interweaves into talk about FE at all sorts of levels is the idea of diversity. Diversity of role, of purpose, of staff, of learner, even of qualification. Diversity today is a positive term when it denotes the aim to include or to represent, but as a description of an educational sector or, indeed, any sector, it can conceal potential problems. For example, to say (truly) that FE does everything from pre entry to degree, teaches pre 16, post 16 and post 60, and every vocational skill you can imagine (hobby, basic, intermediate and advanced levels), shows the great diversity of its enterprise. But, at the same time, this means it is hard to say ‘what FE’ actually is. And if you have no clear referent, you might have, as the philosophers say, no clear meaning. And that’s okay if you are a poet, but not if you want to persuade government to fund you with public money. We need to note that other sectors can do some of these things….if not all.

So, what is unique about FE that the public could understand? It’s a question that Foster put in 2005, Leitch attempted to develop with the notion of skills in 2006, Lingfield deconstructed in 2012, and the Wolf Report (2013) believed it had answered the 100 year problem of FE according to its operational counterpart, the Skills Plan (2016). Leaving Vince Cable’s (2015) ‘dual mandate’ paper which came closest to actually saying what FE would mean for a governing party to gather dust – whatever one thought of its proposals.

Today, the diversity of FE is divided by the monopoly of larger colleges through the Area Reviews, taken up by employer interests (via apprenticeships) and training providers, and rendered more complex in its governance structures following Area Reviews (University interest in FE raises the novel use of designated status; sixth forms working within FE governance structures and the ever expanding college interest in UTCs, Free Schools, academy trusts, continues to hollow out the notion of an actually coherent sector at the institutional level. That means the core purpose of an FE college is, arguably, variable.

Sector or system or something else?
Here we come to the big one. The master term, as some would call it. That which will determine everything else that happens in FE. If we call FE a sector we render it a portion of something else – the trouble is as we have seen above it continues to fall between being an educational sector, but also a supplement to industrial sectors (via training and apprenticeships).

On the other hand, a system, would have an integration with either one or both of these policy fields. In Nordic models it would be with schools and skills would be formed up to 18 and then employers take up the rest or it would be with employers to develop the skills via the dual system (Middle European model). What makes those systems different is that they have legislation which integrates the legal obligations of the partners and, what is more, have formal fora for reaching settlements. We do not have this because we have agreed to let the state and the market decide on who does what and when. Indeed, there is a suggestion that an ecology of skills in a local area does not need a national sector identity. (See Spours and Hodgson on Skills Ecosystems)

A term that is used without much thought is vocational. For example, the further education sector is our term of use not the ‘vocational education’ sector or, as a European might put it, ‘vocational and education training sector’ (VET). So the term has been liberally used, so much so that nobody is particularly concerned with the introduction of ‘technical education’ as a new curriculum development. Yet, ‘technical’ education would suggest it is one up from vocational education? Level 4 is for ‘professional’ qualifications according to the Skills Plan (2016).This means we have, again, neatly evaded the problem term ‘vocational.’ We’ve left it hanging as a pre-technical route but with no real definition, no real positive identity. So what will learners make of an aspirational step that is neither academic nor vocational?

Public Intelligibility and why it matters for FE practitioners
Language matters. So overly broad descriptions are okay if you are a local association that just wants to support like minded members (eg a dog walking club or a book reading club), but if you are a multi-million pound institution, it’s really not. We need a language that not only the government, but the public understand. We need, in short, some criteria of public intelligibility, such as:

1 What FE does
2. Why
3. And how

Any profession or group that wants status and influence needs to answer these questions. It can’t say:

We do many things.
We do it for anybody.
We haven’t figured that out yet because we all do different things in practice….(even if academics sometimes seem to support this).

A profession needs to answer these questions assertively and authoritatively and, like other professions, it can have additional and niche support roles and expertise. But, it cannot evade these criteria for they, arguably, make up the questions the public want answered from those who want their expertise to be socially (and politically) acknowledged.

A New Language?
Perhaps we need a language that respects the needs of the public (social good), of practitioners and the world of work (institutions), as well of learners (private needs), not one dominated by ideological or specific interests. That’s a hard thing to say in the ideological world we live in today (more so because it doesn’t think it has an ideology), but it needs putting because too many good people in the sector are following Humpty Dumpty.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

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