Last night I walked into the A Level section of the local college and sat watching a presentation given by a 30 something, 5ft 3ish tutor with glasses, dressed smartly in the usual FE type outfit of Next trousers, white top and black cardigan. The woman giving the presentation introduced herself as “one of the Sociology teachers and an AS tutor”. The words she spoke were all too familiar to me, I had spoken them on various occassions over the last decade…the only things that were slightly different were her name and the references to Durham and the exact achievement / latest Ofsted inspection results. In short I had the wierd experience of walking into my world on the opposite side of the table. I was a parent, a customer, somebody to be pursuaded that FE colleges were not like Wilt, but rather places of outstanding learning which treated the young people like adults but still had high standards, good results and included parents in the whole process. I was sitting there watching somebody who was uncannily like me do my job whilst I took on an unfamiliar role.
(Aside note here if a certain person who hates my inability to drop the jargon totally is reading…this woman even had a picture of signposts on the slide where she was talking about progression and signposting people on).
What was key in the presentation was ensuring that parents and students both understood that whilst college isn’t school the expectations are very much like school. It is a work environment where the end goal is to achieve a qualification and then progress on either into the workplace or onto a higher level course. The only ways to achieve this are through regular attendance, appropriate behaviour, doing the work and using the support available if you need it – (and there is alot of support available).
The quest to project the professional image and explode the Wilt image is key to FE. They have increasingly experienced the darker side of the marketisation of education since colleges were taken out of local authority control with incorporation during the early 1980s. They have also been shafted consistently by governments who through their funding allocations and policy decisions have continued to ensure that a level playing field does not exist. Lecturers in colleges get paid less than school teachers doing the same job, many colleges are in chaos after they were encouraged to start desperately needed rebuilding projects but then the LSC realised there wasn’t the money available afterall (see this BBC report) and our courses are under increased pressure due to LSC restrictions on student numbers.
The pressure on colleges is to get more paying customers through the door, but paying customers who will be retained and achieve appropriately. It is no longer ok for people to choose to learn as a leisure activity, it has to have a measurable outcome that can contribute to the economy. In this mad world professionalism is important and is there but is measured in the wrong ways. In this world there is no place for the boho teacher who is helping the educated, older woman who has come back to college as a way to get out of the house and doesn’t want to take the exam, but does want to learn about literature, history or sociology. Equally there is no place for the slightly scatty and unkempt lecturer who is a both eccentric and traditional, relying on the chalk and talk approach with lots of handouts and practice papers but does it wonderfully, keeping his students hanging on his every word and swearing a bit if they do happen to drift off….getting a student through with a very low grade, but enthusing him about a subject and in the process stopping him from dropping out totally and just withdrawing into a world of hedonistic activity. In the new world these wonderful teachers are being squeezed out by increasingly strict dress codes, like the one reported in this BBC article, (hat-tip to Maggi for highlighting it).
Personally in my teaching career I do go for the well turned out approach, but as I have become more confident and as my wage increased I moved away from the New Look, Dorothy Perkins, M&S, Next suit approach. My chosen uniform took the form of a smart long, stretchy M&S Per Una skirt, M&S t-shirt or long sleeved top, underneath a Next or M&S jacket. Sometimes this would be varied and a smart Next jumper would take the place of the jacket and top. The reasons for this look, (i) I chose stuff that you didn’t have to spend ages ironing, (2) I found it lasted longer, (3) it was a look I could carrier off better and so actually looked smarter in and (4) I felt more comfortable in it and so was more confident in my teaching. Occassionally, particularly in the summer term if I did not have a meeting with a parent or external visitor, I would wear a smart pair of brown or black jeans with my jacket and t-shirt. This is a look it has been commented upon actually suits me and makes me look quite smart.
As I hope you can tell I do value professionalism in FE, but not the type of professionalism that comes about through too many constraints on staff and is market focused. Rather I value the type of professionalism which is student centred and which really does care about the teaching and learning taking place. Bad teachers should have no place in FE, but slightly eccentric ones – if they are good at their jobs – should.