Arnie Skelton, Head of Business Development Unit, Epping Forest College

Are we still too embedded to the academic model of Further Education? Is the core provision st­­ill too focused on curricula, levels, and qualifications? Is FE as it stands, sleepwalking itself out of existence?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as big a fan as anyone of learning, improvement, and personal development. But not as we know it.

Here’s an alternative FE vision:

  • 24/7, 52 weeks a year provision (like all other companies)
  • What matters is what matters – which is learning as a means to an end, not an end in itself
  • Competence, tested, is what matters, not a paper qualification
  • Learning driven by individual and business needs, rather than driven by FE institutional requirements
  • The learner, not the college, is the hub around which everything revolves
  • Language and provision which is learner and business friendly, rather than ‘FE’ friendly
  • Where core skills and attributes are mental and adaptive, focused on knowing how to learn, rather than embedding core knowledge and technical expertise which may be redundant by the time learners qualify

Answer these three questions:

  1. What have you learned in life that is most useful to you?
  2. How did you learn it?
  3. If you wanted to learn anything new, and had complete choice of how to learn it, what method or route would you choose?

And now consider the 4th question:

4. Did you answer the 3 questions above from a perspective of ‘a teacher’?

As teachers, we may be our own worst enemies: unable to let go of structures, processes and methods that have served us — US — so well for so long. We may become an institution increasingly irrelevant for a new age, with new demands.

And here is another set of questions:

  1. Why are students coming to your college? Seriously.
  2. Ask them, what have they learned that they value, and how have they learned it?
  3. If your FE college – the building, the assets, the staff – didn’t exist at all – there was nothing: but you had the same budget to spend on a brand new provision… what would it be?

Decide where you want to be. Then every day, move further in that direction.

 Are we active exemplars of this? And many learners will echo Churchill’s dictum:

I enjoyed learning. I didn’t always enjoy being taught.

We must never forget that teaching – and all forms of learning support – are a means to an end, and not ends in themselves.

Many – maybe most – of our students learn, and prefer to learn – in ways that are not formally taught.

Of course it’s possible that intellectually, most teachers recognise the force of this argument, along with the evidence that supports it. Yet still there is a lack of movement in this direction in many FE colleges and departments. Why?

One of the interesting reasons why in the 2nd World War, the British won the fighter air battle in 1940, was that the 2 key British fighter aeroplanes were developed very late; there was nothing suitable available. So the brief was for a radical design; hence (particularly) the Spitfire. Yet it was touch and go: until as late as 1937 there was a powerful lobby that the existing biplanes would be good enough. It is perhaps easy to neglect the (challenging) new for the (comforting) familiar. .

Clearly there are examples where the vision I’ve outlined above is alive and kicking…but how widespread is it?  And for those of you – us – who are supportive of this future and our response to it, how many of you are frustrated that you are still a relatively small or lone voice in your institution?

There is almost a ‘collapsing star’ of FE: where the dominant culture is still embedded to old ways. Too many of those staff who favour new ways of thinking and supporting learning seek employment elsewhere – either by not considering a teaching career in the first instance, or leaving to find more compatible pastures elsewhere… leaving potentially a residual base of those who are perhaps more committed to the here and now, than to any challenging (or job-threatening) future…

My final thought is not something I want to say, let alone happen: but it may take an external failure, of some magnitude, to produce the radical change required. epping forest college logoAs the biplane advocates have shown, it is difficult to reform radically from within, where the vested interests tend to lie.

Arnie Skelton, Head of Business Development Unit, Epping Forest College

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