Does the FE sector need its own chartered college?
This article was published by TES on 17th February 2021
A chartered college for FE could give the sector a unified voice as it steps into the spotlight, writes Andrew Morris
A rapidly changing economy is going to mean a changing jobs market – hardly a radical thought – but one that has obvious implications for the college and training sector. As some sectors decline due to the pandemic, others continue with shortages; some realignment is clearly going to happen. Greening the economy will drive these changes even more strongly in the coming decades.
The role of colleges and training organisations in responding to training and educational needs is beginning to be acknowledged in public discourse. Shifting from airline steward to care worker, or restaurateur to home insulator, won’t happen by good old amateurish make-and-mend. Policy reforms look as though they are beginning to recognise this. Qualification structures, funding mechanisms and employer-teacher links are all in the frame.
Such top-down modifications alone will not be sufficient, however. A key factor is easily overlooked: whether people will actually succeed in their learning. Without genuine gains in knowledge and skills, neither emerging industries nor hopeful learners will be properly served. Dropout from courses, failure in assessments and loss of aspiration and confidence are the unacceptable cost of poor learning experiences. Whatever changes emerge at policy level, it’s the effectiveness of teaching upon which it‘s all going to depend in the long run. Research repeatedly shows that high-quality teachers are key to serious gains in learning.
A chartered college to represent FE?
Research also debunks the myth that good teachers are given to us by virtue of their gifts and talents alone. Good teachers are made. As for any profession working with complexity, constant attention is needed to the capabilities and knowledge of the practitioners. New and better methods are developed through research and better understanding is gained from experience and appropriate data. Professionals need regular exposure to emerging knowledge and shifting conceptualisations as they move through their careers.
More obviously high-risk professions, such as engineering, aviation, medicine and surveying, developed professional institutions long ago to ensure their members have opportunities to update and develop throughout their careers. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, for example, was founded in 1792. Such bodies also reassure society at large by establishing standards and certifying the competence of practitioners.
Recent years have seen important changes in this direction in education, with the growth of rigorous applied research by the Education Endowment Foundation and the championing of its use by the new Chartered College of Teaching. Ensuring that evidence fits actual classroom problems and teachers and leaders are able to engage with it are the basics of sustained improvement in learning.
Professional standards, programmes of continuous training and development, representation of professional knowledge in political debates – many strands make up the role of a professional organisation. Key to it all is independence. It’s the subscriptions paid by members and grants from research foundations that ensure government, commerce or any other interest does not override the evidence from practice-driven research. The success of any professional body – chartered, Royal or neither – depends critically on attracting members from its workforce.
Education, in general, has lagged behind in this endeavour: the forerunner of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development was founded in 1913 and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 1792. Is it time for further education to move forward in the way the school sector did a few years ago? There is a track record to build on: the Institute for Learning began the task in 2002 and the Society for Education and Training began work on it in 2015. Could the work already undertaken on professional standards, learning communities and communicating evidence be enhanced and complemented by, for example, attracting independent research funding to inform and scale-up development programmes?
The task is not easy. The Chartered College of Teaching came about only after years of careful preparatory work by a committed band of teacher campaigners, parliamentarians and charitable foundations. As the case for it grew and a plan emerged, it was transitional financial support from government that made it possible to launch when membership fees would not suffice.
Further education and training begins with a different context. Agile and adaptive, it regularly picks up the full width of post-16 learners, including those schools and universities are unwilling to take on. One consequence of this breadth is that it has spawned a proliferation of specialised bodies to represent and develop its various segments. A bewildering array of bodies exercises responsibility for awarding and regulating qualifications, representing leaders, developing curricula, training practitioners, engaging with employers and coping with many other facets.
This complexity enables the interests of each element of the sector to be served, but leaves the voice of the profession as a whole unduly muted. A more unified voice is needed if the public and policymakers are to be reached effectively. A voice that speaks with the authority of a well-trained, research-informed, up-to-date body of professionals.
The challenge is daunting: so many obstacles, such tricky starting conditions. Who could advocate change on such a scale? In 1818 a group of civil engineers met in a London coffee shop to create the Institution of Civil Engineers. Seventy years later a group of nurses came together to form the British Nurses Association, forerunner of the Royal College of Nursing. Is it practitioners and their leaders in the end who step forward to create professional bodies?
The Policy Consortium, of which I am a member, has been working independently for many years, articulating and documenting the voice of practitioners. It has no power or resource to bring about practical change, but does recognise the primacy of this issue. With such a wealth of organisations already offering relevant services, albeit on too small a scale, could a start be made by consolidating what we have? With collaboration, the new watchword in health policy, is the time ripe for a powerful professional structure, independent of government, to be put together? It would go a long way towards reinforcing the capability of the sector as it emerges, blinking, into the unfamiliar limelight.
Andrew Morris is a member of the Policy Consortium.The Policy Consortium on Twitter