The thorny question of education professionalism is once again raising its battered head above the parapet. In the Further, Adult, Community and Skills sector a new bottom-up democratic and activist body, Tutor Voices, has been launched.
Tutor Voices came out of a group of FE professionals and academics who wanted to create a truly democratic and participatory, egalitarian, independent, collaborative and campaigning organisation to take forward professional interests.
It was established at a conference at Huddersfield University on International Workers Day and formally launched the day after the General Election in Liverpool at an event to mark the publication of Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, a book of essays by many of those who founded Tutor Voices.
Over the weekend of 25th September, Tutor Voices held their first event at Northern College and began the process of beginning to spell out its rationale, beliefs, principles and ways forward.
The rationale for Tutor Voices was to promote a critical pedagogy which would be democratic, independent, participatory and inclusive. It was about creating the 'conscious teacher' which was at least in part about knowing why we do things and articulating this and about collaboration with our peers.
It would also be about creating an identity and space for discussion and research and gaining a seat at the decision making tables for the professionals. Part of the rationale of Tutor Voices was about creating teacher identity, confidence and empowerment; and would embrace the diversity of the sector.
The 1st day of the inaugural event was taken up with a series of plenary presentations followed by discussions in smaller groups. Professor Frank Coffield, a founding member of Tutor Voices, gave the sparkling opening address.
Building on his earlier critiques of developments in FE and Skills and their bureaucracies and the marginalisation of FE teachers and trainers, Professor Coffield called for education professionals to have a seat at the top tables where FE policy was being decided because they have a distinctive expertise developed over years of teaching, a collective identity, a service ethic and a set of values and principles.
He went on to criticise the FE Commissioner's criteria for quality which were purely quantitative and reduced quality to an accountant's views. He finished by drawing 3 ideas from his Bill of Rights for professional educators in FE and Skills.
These were that there needed to be a new relationship between the Sector and government, a relationship which was based on creating a shared trust with a self-confident sector; and a sector which was based on strong, stable and financially resilient providers.
Professor Coffield was followed by shorter presentations by Lou Mycroft, a Northern College tutor with some thoughts on organising networks, and by David Powell, an FE teacher educator from Huddersfield University on issues around research and practice in FE. He described 6 roles for the FE teacher educator, part of which was to model values.
He quoted Maire Daley's Freirean mantra: 'there is no such thing as neutral education, education acts as either a process of domestication or liberation'. These plenary presentations were followed by discussions in smaller groups. Although set the task of looking at why a democratic teacher network is needed, and what it might look like and what it should do, the groups roamed well beyond this.
The afternoon started with a brief presentation about the need for communities and networks of practice. It was becoming clear that the early life of Tutor Voices would be shaped by being a network rather than a structured organisation.
Colin Waugh, editor of Post 16 Educator, outlined some of the antecedents of Tutor Voices. There were also short presentations about other FE networks such as the LSRN and on COOCs - community on-line learning networks, rhyzomatic network working and the professional networks that had been established in defence of ESOL.
Subsequent discussions focused on structures for Tutors Voices and campaigning priorities. Although no firm conclusions came out of the discussions on structure there was a general feeling that social media would be useful in getting the news of Tutors Voices and its activities out. Funding would be an issue that would need to be dealt with, as even small amounts of resources would be needed.
Among the early priorities mentioned were the development of a web site, contacts for membership inquiries, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, having some publications. When it came to organising principles coherence, working at local level and building alliances with other organisations were all put forward.
Throughout the weekend it became clear that at least at the beginning Tutors Voices would be more of a network than a highly structured organisation. The twin organisational arises would be geographical – that is having local/regional meetings and meetings organised around specific curriculum issues and subjects.
In conclusion, there was a great deal of goodwill and commitment to the ideas generated by Tutors Voices. A list of action points were identified and there are to be meetings in the North East and in London in the near future.
Given the recent cuts to further education and especially adult learning already, with even worse to come out of the 2015 Spending Review to be announced at the end of November, the overall message from this 1st Tutor Voices event was in the words of Gramsci, 'the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'.
Dan Taubman is the former UCU Senior National Official for FE and Lifelong Learning, and a founder member of Tutor Voices