FE is vital for democracy – five challenges for a National Education Service

By Nita Sanghera, Access Lecturer at Bournville College and Black Members rep on UCU NEC; and Rhiannon Lockley, Access Lecturer at Halesowen College and Midlands FE rep on UCU NEC

After training to teach in FE some time ago we have both had the privilege of sharing the journeys of hundreds of learners as they progress through college and on to bright futures.

We work in adult education, and our learners can have multiple barriers; mental health issues, domestic abuse, juggling childcare, work, poverty, and previous bad experience. Some we lose; many more go on to share their life experiences, sharpen their skills, and take the next step.

We love working in adult education, however working in FE can also be exhausting. As well as being teachers we are mentors, counsellors and full-time administrators. Our students are increasingly held back by such things as demanding bosses (who have them on zero hours contracts) or bedroom tax evictions.

What we as college lectures know is that free access to education at all ages is vital to grow a healthy democracy. FE – in our colleges, our communities and our prisons – has to be a priority if we want change. It is a key feature of the hugely popular National Education Service policy and it needs to be a central part of a future Labour government. Here are five challenges we need to tackle to get the NES right.

1) The lie that 50% of student journeys are failing at any one time

One of the greatest ironies of FE, given that it is part of the education sector, is the mind numbing lack of intelligent oversight which has delivered the Orwellian standard that all learner achievements should be above average! It can’t be done! An average is the middle. This is not rocket science.

For Further Education to deliver,we need to move on from this meaningless total focus on how students compare with one another – a snapshot of what will inevitably be a curve with half on either side of the middle – to a holistic understanding that FE is about distance travelled.

2) The panopticon as the standard for success

In FE colleges across our country, policy never appears to have an independent usefulness in terms of what it has been created for, it is always about how we appear to external visitors. Are you highlighting your promotion of the Prevent strategy and British values? Does each learner have an individualised target and set of resources for your lesson? Are you embedding literacy, numeracy, E and D, employability, e-learning? You need to for Ofsted. British values and Prevent are a different story.But the obsession with showing things are done means that everything becomes a shallow exercise to evidence something has been met.

3) The lie that we need to “make” migrants learn English

To suggest that poor English levels result from a refusal to enter education is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

From Tory bravado over deporting spousal migrants who fail English tests to the cross-party social integration group’s demand that migrants learn English as soon as they enter the UK, there has been a consistent untruth told by politicians about where blame lies over language barriers.

And yet ESOL courses have been at the end of some of the most savage cuts to FE, with colleges across the UK reporting huge waiting lists as they have not got the resources to provide places for people who want to learn.

4) The belief that education should finish in your early 20s

In 2015 adult education, already under funded, was hit with a 24% cut. The cuts have been devastating, but are just part of a wider and nonsensical belief which frames how our education sector works.

For instance the structure of our education system is heavily weighted against working class women (expecially if they have had kids).

Why is there no room not just for retraining but for life-long learning as a way of continual skills and knowledge development for the workforce and as a bridge to wide participatory democracy?

FE has the power to transform communities for the better. We need to move beyond the obsession with “business need” and “skills” and have the imagination to see what access to education for its own sake.

5) Obsession with competition

Neoliberalism and the New Right philosophy that we raise standards in education by creating a free market and competition took root in FE early on. Since incorporation in the 1990s this has meant a culture of fiefdoms in our colleges. Local colleges are referred to as competitors. FE has lost sight of the idea that it should be a wide reaching network of opportunity which any community can plug into.

In recent years when the FE commissioner undertook area reviews to create “fewer, more efficient” colleges (read – mergers and cuts) we ended up in the position where the under-funding of the sector had to be blamed on the reckless finances of individual colleges,with a new emphasis on colleges working together with their competitors to deliver services like apprenticeships – whilst still competing, obviously.

Further Education should belong to the communities it exists in and wider society – there is no place for corporations and the lack of accountability and hostility that a corporate ethos brings. Colleges which are social assets and not corporations will transform communities for the better.

Strategies to defend education

So, how do we overcome these five challenges? We believe there are two key steps to take. First, to defend our colleges we need active unions, active student groups and active community support.

If you work in FE, you can join UCU, the union for FE lecturing staff here. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have led the student fight for free education. FE members will start strike action over pay: the more communities support the strikes, the more we can achieve in a fight for fairly funded colleges.

UCU needs strategies to defend education which go beyond handholding members out of the building and releasing statements, to actively fighting for our colleges.

We need unions, students and communities to campaign together. To take on this challenge, Nita is standing for election as UCU president. If you are a member you should support the left slate in the elections this February.

If elected, Nita will be the first black president and provide a determined grassroots voice for a union which fights for our colleges.

Finally, support Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a National Education Service, and fight for FE as a central part of it. A national education service has the power to transform society. Lifelong learning means skills needs are consistently met – but it also means we are all raised up. Education is a positive source of empowerment, it allows us to question the way society is run to improve it. We need to take the opportunity together to fight for education for everyone.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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