From education to employment

Looking Back on the Week that Was with FE News

Several problems arise in trying to compose an article that looks back on the week just ending for Further Education.

One of the very thorniest of problems is that of what to include, and what the purpose of the glance over the shoulder should be. Should it be a call to arms for the perceived injustices, a clarion cry that many tens of people will flock to and stand behind ““ for a week or two? Or should it be used as an opportunity to praise the people who do work hard and dedicate their professional lives to improving the lot of individuals who have struggled or been excluded in other education and training programmes?

Lurking in the Bushes

Sometimes, it can be best to just let things flow naturally; often solutions to a problem can be found by changing the terms of reference. There are any number of metaphors that can be taken and butchered by a willing scribbler of words slaving away in front of the glowing box and hyped up on half the coffee crop of Columbia, as the same writer aims to convey the plight of the people working in education.

Let us assume that the FE professional is a species of animal, for the sake of argument; a shy and retiring creature, it would seem, one that rarely comes out in “media light”. It is almost possible to hear Sir David’s commentary”¦

“And here, if we sit quietly, yes, just there earnestly continuing with its work”¦yes, viewer, we are in for a rare treat. Here we see the neglected education professional. Note the furrow in its brow as it tries to make a two pieces of wood do the same work as three, the hunch in its back that many believe to be due to the burden carried”¦”

Middle Child

This is of course a colourful and simplistic view of FE. But it raises a valid concern, and a question that has changed in the past few years. I am sure that a regular visitor to FE News, or indeed anyone who has become aware of any issue within FE in the past five years, will be well aware of the perceived “image problem” that FE suffers from. Some refer to it as the “Cinderella” sector; others, notably Sir Andrew Foster, call FE the “forgotten middle child” of education.

The argument as to whether or not this is true is as mandatory as it is obvious in its conclusion; of course, FE does labour under a poor and antiquated image that many people are working hard to change. Public awareness of the sector is still lower than it should be, in spite of the millions who learn through Further Education of one sort or another every year. Publicity, it would seem, is needed”¦the question then becomes one of whether there is no such thing as bad publicity?

The Glass Slipper

This is not another reference to the comments from Sir Alan Sugar on his television show; this is more a comment on the very nature of a public service sector. The Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) has been launched, to drive forward the agenda for quality delivery in FE. No ““ one can argue that quality is important of course; but quite apart from the £92 million budget given to an Agency that does not actually fund projects, but “commissions”, it is yet another acronym pushing for a seat at a bar that is already three deep.

The public awareness of FE may be lower than it should be; but at first glance, what would the public see if they took that long hard look? What would the public see if the FE animal came out in the daylight and stood, squinting in discomfort, in clear view? Would they see a sector driving for success, millions of learners improving their skills, the society and the economy, thanks to thousands of dedicated professionals devoting their lives to their jobs? Or would they simply see an ocean of acronyms and leave with the notion that once you take away the fur, there is not much animal left?

The QIA is an important agency; and the mission to offer quality is crucial for continued success. But for a public already convinced that too many agencies are bad for business, the creation of another one might be viewed as an attempt to force a size eleven foot into a size four glass slipper. If the public is the Prince, I am not sure Cinderella would like going to the ball.

Jethro Marsh

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