Professor Frank Coffield gave an impassioned speech at the lively Newbubbles Annual Conference ‘The Future of Further Education’ last week, opening up an important debate for the sector.

The Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, was on fire as he held the torch high for FE, particularly its learners and lecturers. He praised the many social benefits that participation in the sector brings, but also criticised the government for having a narrow focus on skills and employment.

High on his list of questions was whether students leave FE colleges as skilled workers as well as being active citizens - and whether they would cope with the main threats to our collective wellbeing, such as climate change.

He answered them with an emphatic ‘no’.  And he made a good case, if it was needed, that it is government policy that stands in the way of the sector.

Throughout his speech Coffield gave a variety examples, ranging from the competitive nature that government fosters between colleges to the emphasis on business management rather than education practice, that he believes have been costly in human and monetary terms, and an emphasis of a type of learning that he likens to the sector illness of ‘bulimia academica’, which is also the title of his forthcoming book.

He said: “Our students are reduced to bulimic learning. To get through their studies and exams, they binge on information and in government induced bouts of vomiting, which we call national tests, they spew up as much as they can remember.”

The equivalent of a societal peer pressure on young people to want to be thin, seems to be the pressure to get an A* grade. Far from diagnosing the patient without having talked TO HER about symptoms, Coffield told his audience that he is frequently told on his working visits to colleges that the climate in the sector is “toxic”.  He blames an increased amount of stress and workloads, declining sociability at work, endless paperwork, more surveillance of tutors and graded lessons. Instead, colleges should focus on becoming learning communities, in which learning becomes the central organising principle, not only for learners and tutors but also for managers.

He said colleges need to invest in TLA (teaching, learning and assessment) through substantial increases of their CPD budgets, stocking libraries with evidence-based education journals and books, giving staff opportunities to study for higher degrees, and giving senior management time to TLA by making it a standard agenda item.

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Central to success is also the encouragement of risk-taking and an end to graded observations to encourage self-reflection, he continued. Coffield did not pretend that any of these ideas would be new to the sector, which he so clearly feels whole-heartedly part of, but that they need to permeate the system. However, he made it quite clear that there is much that the government needs to do to enable this, and central to that is the need for a professional voice of the sector that must be heard when policy is being developed.

“You are invisible when policy is being developed and you become indispensable when it has to be enacted,” he said.

He told the crowd of managers and lecturers that the sector prides itself on its responsiveness, but “I think you are too responsive, I think it is high time you stood up and started making minimal requirements of government.”

He finished by sharing what wakes him at 4 in the morning - the voice of the predecessors in FE asking: “What are you going to do to defend the sector?”

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can follow Andrea on Twitter , and Facebook, or find out more about her by visiting www.changethatmatters.co.uk

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)

Newbubbles is a successful specialist training & consultancy in further education, based in Portsmouth, whose mission is to support colleges and teachers improve teaching, learning & assessment in post-compulsory education using nationally-respected speakers and trainers

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