FE Teachers under Siege – power, compliance and professionalism

cookingThis is a paper given for ResearchED at BSix in Hackney today which explores relationships between FE teachers, their employers, and Government in the light of changes in education policy and funding.


In the session I described what we mean by education professionalism, and map out some of the key Further Education policy milestones that have come about over the last two decades. I explained how the direction of travel in policy terms is contributing to a fragmentation of Further Education teacher professionalism in general. I gave examples of how this particularly relates to the arguments surrounding FE teaching qualifications and their organisation. This is linked to educational theory and disputes about the role of knowledge in education, as well as debates around the idea that high quality teaching can be competency-based in any useful sense. Finally I made a number of suggestions about future policy and practice that could help FE teachers reclaim their profession for the benefit of all.

What do we mean by teacher professionalism?

Professionalism is a difficult concept in education and there is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of the term. Generally speaking, a common understanding is that being a professional involves, amongst other things:

SLIDE 1 (See the previous post for ppt slides)

  • setting your own fees,
  • setting your own conditions for work,
  • sharing a codified body of knowledge,
  • having a role in determining who can join the profession, and
  • engaging in self-regulation.

In their book Teachers’ Professional Lives (1996), Goodson and Hargreaves call this classical professionalism, and in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals (1957) the sociologist Durkheim considered that a professional needed to act as a bridge or social intermediary between the state and the citizen. This suggests a public service or altruistic element to the role. The sociologist Talcott Parsons also viewed professionalism along these lines.

The Goodson and Hargreaves version arguably represents an idealized form of professionalism. The problem is whether it is school or at FE college, the reality of teaching is often very different from that.  Etzioni (1969) probably hit the nail on the head when he described the teaching profession, along with nursing and social work, as a semi-profession (Goodson and Hargreaves call this ‘complex professionalism’). In this understanding of the term, the professional typically has a very complicated workload, and works within a complex organization, usually under the control of others. In other words, the teaching professional is significantly less autonomous than, say, a solicitor in independent practice or even an aromatherapist. It is here where the two conceptualisations run up against one another, and it is here where we see the potential for conflict between professionals and the state. 21st century teachers see themselves as higher order professionals, whereas in the Etzioni sense at least, society probably sees them as semi-professionals, insulting as that may sound.

It wasn’t always the case, however. In my book Teachers Under Siege, which was published a decade ago now, I talk a lot about the way teaching has changed over the last half-century. Teaching used to be something of a high-status profession, but over time this has changed and its status appears to have been degraded over the years. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is the intrusion of certain kinds of Government policy. Different governments latch onto education as a way of easily creating a sense of momentum, something the anthropologist Levi-Strauss described as a ‘hot’ chronology (as opposed to a ‘cold’ chronology, where people potter along steadily and less appears to happen during a particular timescale). If this Governmental desire for the appearance of change and activity is combined with a free-market, post-industrial conceptualization of the purpose of education, teacher professionalism runs into difficulties. This is because teaching isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a solely instrumental activity, and teachers can’t be all things to all people at the whim of a government. Yet all too often, teachers seem to have been made scapegoats for failings in the wider economy. To a large extent, this is the recent history of education professionalism as we know it.  The Cambridge academic John Beck saw this as harmful and made this argument:

…once education has become so thoroughly subordinated to such instrumental purposes and agencies, what may be left of education itself? … [this] may portend not merely a fashionable ‘makeover’ of education … but rather, a far more significant and insidious process of takeover, in which any significant set of educational values may be increasingly at risk’ (Beck, 1999, p.224)

So on one level, the problem of contemporary teacher professionalism is really a problem about teacher autonomy and values, which are continually being eroded, as governments increasingly regulate what teachers do. These are not the only factors, however. The problem is also about uncertainties surrounding the role of professional knowledge in teaching. If we want to understand this, it is useful to look at the work of Basil Bernstein. In his seminal book Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity; Theory, Research, Critique (1996) Bernstein said that externally regulated knowledge requires a kind of professional inner emptiness, and what he described as a detachment of knowledge from the knower. In the context of contemporary education policy, this means that the knowledge teachers are supposed to have is meant to be neutral and the same from teacher to teacher, so that teachers are infinitely interchangeable. Knowledge therefore becomes a kind of commodity, and teachers are seen as mere technicians delivering it. They do not have any particular ownership of such knowledge, not in a personal sense, anyway. As a result of this, we have seen the associated rise of trends in different sectors, such as a desire for lists of teacher competencies, where different aspects of teacher knowledge can be neatly ticked off. So let’s explore the impact this movement towards changes in regulating professional knowledge has had on FE teaching in recent years.

A recent history of FE teacher professionalism

Over the last two decades, there have been a number of initiatives aimed at introducing teacher training to the FE sector, with a review to introducing increased regulation, introducing more consistent standards and reducing fragmentation across the sector. This represented a clear move away from vocational or occupational standards as forming the primary basis for professionalism. The question is, of course, how successful the initiatives were in achieving this. The rather overwhelming timeline for the introduction of professional standards was as follows:


1999 Further Education National Training Organisation (FENTO) established, an employer-led body

2001 DfES publishes statutory instrument giving legislative authority

2002 DfES publishes further standards and requirements for teachers of adult basic skills

2003 OFSTED condemns FENTO, stating that training was too variable,there was inadequate support, and few opportunities for further development. There was also a lack of subject mentoring and little in the way of observations and feedback.

2004 Government publishes monitoring targets and new policy document Equipping teachers for our future

2005 FENTO abolished and replaced with Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK). New national standards brought in with a view to raising professional status of FE teachers.

2006 Publication of LLUK standards. Publication by DfES of Professionalisation of the learning and skills sector

2007 LLUK publishes mandatory units of assessment, QTLS (Qualified teacher status for the learning and skills sector) also introduced

2008 Reforms implemented.

By any stretch of the imagination, this series of events looks disorganized and somewhat chaotic, taking nine years to get some kind of consistent training initiative off the ground. In a recent article in Research in Post-Compulsory Education, Jonathan Tummons maps out in considerable detail the move towards frameworks for professional standards for FE teachers in England, through the eyes of serving FE teachers. He finds three significant factors influencing an apparent lack of progress:

  1. Frameworks were largely voluntary, which allowed employers to maximize flexibility, but teachers were rarely properly consulted.
  2. No fewer than three different sets of professional standards were imposed on the teaching workforce since 2000, and sometimes they were confusing.
  3. Throughout, teacher training arrangements within the sector generally appeared to be fairly incoherent – different academic levels, different credit structures, and different assessment regimes.

In addition, Tummons points out that training was invariably underfunded, poorly integrated with HR functions in colleges, and showed a high degree of fragmentation in the profession. Professional bodies came and went, employers dominated the field, and the role of professional knowledge remained unresolved. This was the perfect example of a ‘hot chronology’, with a congested timeline, in which there was the impression of Government action, yet nothing much was apparently achieved.

What did this mean for FE teacher professionalism?

The drive to introduce some form of accreditation for all FE teachers partly came in relation to the Kennedy report Learning Works: Widening Participation in Further Education (1997). In this report, there was a call for social cohesion and a move away from seeing education purely as an economic good. Within this framework, FE teachers were seen as a therapeutic tool of sorts, steeped in public values, but at the same time responding neatly to what potential employers wanted. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to have been a coded picture painted of the identity of learners. Non-participants were tacitly defined and stigmatized as being outside society in some way, as they weren’t actively helping their own situations. Participants were supposed to finance their own training, yet it was supposed for be mainly for the benefit of employers, belying the arguments made for avoiding purely instrumental learning. If we are going to look at how this impacted on the identity of individual students, we see those not coming along to sign up for FE courses as somehow out of touch, and behind the times, and those engaging with FE as in touch, and with the times. This is similar to what is called ‘rational actor theory, based on the assumption that people know what they are doing and act logically at all times. Often they don’t, often there are good reasons for them not choosing certain things, but this is generally disregarded by the system. And that certainly happened within FE.

So we see FE regulation in the 21st century rapidly becoming a messy hotbed of conflict and tension – students being labelled in particular way that may not have made much sense in real life, and teachers being expected to comply and conform with infinitely variable changes of policy and expectation whilst seeking to corral their students, in Government policy terms, at least. And all this was being done as a free market approach to FE was being extended, with colleges becoming autonomous from Local Education Authorities, and competing for resources in an entrepreneurial field. This led to extensive fragmentation of the sector, and of the role of the FE teacher in general. Managerialism had started to take over in the professional domain.

In a journal article by Norman Lucas from 2013, we see how this played out in practice. He writes about how the 192 professional standards that were eventually development as part of the move towards certification where not just statements, they were broken down into much smaller units and linked to performance criteria. This ended up being highly prescriptive so the requirements became an in end in themselves. The apparent weakness of employer organisations, trade unions, and professional FE organisations meant that challenging this competency-based approach in any useful way proved impossible. In turn this led to a poor occupational culture for trainees and anyone engaging in CPD, with only very limited opportunity for mentoring, something that is still resented today. Hence instead of being education and empowered, FE teachers were simply being trained to be compliant, and to achieve objectives on paper. Training had frequently become a stick to beat over the proverbial heads of FE teachers, instead of being properly valued in its own right.


The period between 1999 and 2008, and subsequent deregulation, was certainly a tumultuous one for FE teacher professionalism, and recent budget cutbacks can only have exacerbated the problem. Sue Pember of FE Week threw down the gauntlet recently after Sir Michael Wilshaw publicly criticized the FE sector. She said, “What vocational education and training in England needs is policy stability and sustainable funding.” This is well-observed, but we need to think about what else has gone wrong, and how this night be addressed. Firstly, we see that there has been a major societal shift, as FE finds a new role in an increasingly market-driven sector.  Teachers are required to be infinitely retrainable, responding immediately to direction from the Government of the day. This might be convenient, but it is dangerous. This is because it encourages educators to ignore their inner compass regarding ethical practice and high quality professionalism, in favour of a fluctuating, externally-driven framework for their activities.

Moving forwards

The key factor that differentiates FE teachers from secondary school teachers is the idea of dual professionalism, as discussed in the 2013 It’s About Work report published by the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning. A dual professional is both an occupational specialist as well as a pedagogical one. Developing skills in both, and balancing them accordingly, is something that takes time and support, things which have not always been in good supply. Yet it is here where we might find the way forward from the certification mess towards a more useful model for FE teacher professionalism in the future.

David Guile’s very recent work into the Teach Too programme at Oldham College offers a useful framework for dual professionalism in relation to vocational learning. It recognizes the relationship with employers whilst at the same promoting solid pedagogical practice. He breaks this down into three main areas:

Arrangements: Formal partnerships between employers and learning providers, which may not be necessary but which can be desirable. These needs to be linked to other forms of collaboration, underpinned by a clear business case.

Activities: This implies clear benefits for learners twinned with a clear line of sight to potential employment.

Outcomes and impacts: This emphasizes collaboration, the development and design of innovative curricula and related qualifications, and support for occupational experts in delivering teaching, learning and assessment.

What might this mean in practice?

In the Teach Too report there are a number of reasons that this can play out within FE in a useful sense, which mainly boil down to careful collaboration and networking. For example:

  • Employers running workshops in an FE context
  • Employers contributing to module development and teaching
  • Employers helping to set benchmarks for occupational standards
  • Employers providing guest speakers
  • Lecturers and trainers providing workshops to help employers teach their specialisms
  • Lecturers and trainers collaborating with employers when developing CPD
  • Employers sharing access to state of the art, industry standard machines and equipment so lecturers and trainers can revise modular content to take account of technical advances
  • Mutual work-shadowing to develop and consolidate relationships between FE and the workplace
  • Collaborative working on projects

This kind of close relationship between FE and the workplace will help to recalibrate FE teacher professionalism with the outside world, rather than relying on the kind of messy certification structures I outlined earlier. This allows FE teachers to bring a new professional confidence to the table, situated within occupational contexts, with intrinsic guarantees of quality and reliability. This can in turn be supported by unions and professional FE organisations.  Examples of how this might be further supported by FE institutions include:

  • Systematic organisation of subject-based training as well as continuing professional development, so that both occupational standards and the role of knowledge are linked closely together, rather than being separated. There needs to be respect for the highly personalized and nuanced knowledge developed by FE teachers in during the course of their professional lives, and training should build on this rather than be distant from it, in the manner David Guile has suggested.
  • Restructuring FE to make for a fairer funding regime, more closely aligned to that experienced by schools and universities. This will allow for better long-term planning and enhanced career pathways.
  • Allowing FE teachers to have more say in the development of occupational standards at a number of different levels – local, regional and national.
  • Providing greater resources for liaison between industry, FE teaching and accreditation bodies so changes grow from a desire to serve local students and their potential future employers rather than relying on Government diktat.

The emphasis in terms of professionalism therefore needs to be on a kind of collaborative identity formation with lecturers and trainers working together with employers to develop frameworks for knowledge. In turn these frameworks for knowledge need to link to occupational standards, whilst at the same time being rooted in a dynamic model of pedagogical growth. So ultimately Further Education professionalism needs to be about knowledge relationships, not the imposition of policy from the top.


Further reading

Commission on Adult and Vocational Teaching and Learning (2013) It’s About Work: Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning (London: Learning and Skills Improvement Service)

Leaton Gray, S (2006) Teachers Under Siege (Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books)

Lucas, N (2013) “One step forwards, two steps back? The professionalization of further education teachers in England” Research in Post-Compulsory Education 18:4 389-401

Lucans, N Nasta, T and Rogers, L (2011) “From fragmentation to chaos? The regulation of initial teacher training in further education” British Educational Research Journal 38:4 677-695

Oldham College (2015) Teach Too: Employer led curriculum development and implementation in Digital and Creative (Oldham, Oldham College)

Tummons, J (2016) “‘Very positive’ or ‘vague and detached’? Unpacking ambiguities in further education teachers’ responses to professional standards in England” Research in Post-Compulsory Education 21:4 346-359



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.