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Time to imagine the unimaginable

Rania Hafez is a senior lecturer in education and programme leader for the MA Education at the University of Greenwich
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Back to work blues after too brief a summer break to find Further Education facing even more existential challenges. Funding slashed; provision restricted; targets raised; and never mind Ofsted moving the goal posts, they have totally redesigned the playing field.

It’s not surprising that most of us will be starting the year with trepidation and exasperation bordering on the despair. Our sense of autonomy and agency further diminished, our professionalism seemingly sliding ever backwards the steep slope of instrumentalism and commodification. Sometimes I think we might as well just give up.

Yet there are strong glimmers of hope emanating from the sector. A renewed resilience tinged with gentle optimism characterise new initiatives. From principals who call on us to ‘imagine a better future for FE’ and ‘the possibilities of new types of partnership and governance’ to the launch of Tutor Voices, a grassroots professional network, that does what it says on the tin: acts as the voice of teachers and tutors in the sector. Suddenly we seem to be readying to take on the defeatist narrative and offer new alternatives to the status quo.

So is this the start of the counter-revolution? Well not if we are imagining a new future for FE using old certainties. To create the Further Education we all aspire to, we must dare to imagine and name the unimaginable.

To those who call on us to limit our scope to economic and social realities and rebuild FE within the current context, I say deckchairs and sinking ships come to mind. Our downfall as educators has been in our acceptance of an imposed professional context. We gave up on our authority as teachers and educators and the gatekeepers of knowledge and pedagogy. And by that I don’t just mean authority in the classroom over students. I am talking about that inherent confidence in one’s mastery of the subject and control of the language attached to it. And the subject here is Education.

Like Samson we have been sitting at the barber’s chair far too long. We have accepted a succession of orthodoxies as immutable concrete realities. We know the emperor is stark naked, yet we constantly enter into futile arguments over his coat’s hemline. The revolution will only happen if we dare to challenge those orthodoxies and propose a vision for FE where education is back at the centre of what we do. It’s time to slay a few holy cows (more on those in another article maybe) and re-establish an old faith. Faith in knowledge; faith in teaching.

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To start with we really must oppose the economic determinism of education. As many eminent academics have established, there is no link between education and the economy. The reason young people aren’t getting jobs is because there aren’t any. It is not about their lack of qualifications or our bad teaching. It is the economy. And it is high time we reject outright the coupling of education to the economy and stop using that language when we talk about our sector and our practices. What makes my student employable is not that I taught her a set of skills, but that I enlightened her mind and equipped her to question, create and learn.

We must also reject the social engineering aspect of education. It is not our role to tamper with our students’ happiness, diet or personality. And we are not the thought police. Education cannot and should not be an emotional band aid we administer to gaping social wounds. Education is about enlightening minds and hope that the hearts and souls may follow. But it is not our job to artificially engineer it, because that stops being education and starts becoming something more sinister.

Some will find it difficult to abandon the old language simply because that’s all we’ve known. For too long ‘they’ have been dictating the script and defining the very parameters of our thoughts. To imagine and build a new Further Education we need to jettison the mantras and fads routinely churned out by managers, civil servants and Ofsted. We must redefine the terms, on our terms.

And to do that we will need to go back to basics. The fundamentals of being a professional educator. Re-learn the language of knowledge, of ideas, of the mind. Regain our faith in ourselves as teachers. Have the courage to stand by timeless educational principles. Courage to disagree, to argue, to fight for an unimaginable, brilliant, Further Education.

Rania Hafez is a senior lecturer in education and programme leader for the MA Education at the University of Greenwich

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