Finding our voice and telling our story - Paul Stanistreet
I recently had the opportunity to interview the founding group of FETL fellows at a special event where they presented the findings of their six months’ research.
It was great to hear what the fellows – all employed in further education and all new to academic research – had achieved in so short a space of time. I was struck by the value they attached to the space the fellowship programme had given them to think, critically and independently, about the future of further education and skills.
In a turbulent, fast-moving sector, where constant change and adaptation is a fact of life, time to reflect is in increasingly short supply. That is one reason why these fellowships are so important and their outcomes deserve the widest possible dissemination, within the sector and among policy makers.
But it wasn’t just the time the fellows appreciated. It was also the chance to think without limits or prescription. Tim Ward, Chief Executive of The Learning Curve and one of the founding fellows, felt it was FETL’s willingness not to be prescriptive about themes or outcomes that helped him focus his research on the questions that really mattered.
‘I think that is a really good space to be,’ Tim told me. ‘When we do our day jobs we are compromising all the time. Somebody needs to look at the FE sector and say, this is what it is actually like, not what we would like it be, or what it should be. That’s a big question and it needs to be asked by someone who is prepared to tell the truth, rather than say whatever suits its particular purpose.’
This is the kind of research we need, Tim believes, and not just research that is about ‘this week’s policy objective’.
Although the fellows started from very different places their work converged in places and strong commonalities emerged. All the fellows noted the significant pressures placed on staff, whether through accountability measures, poorly thought-out policymaking or financial belt-tightening and restructuring. In such a tough environment, as Ruth Allen, FETL fellow and development manager at The Cornwall College Group, noted, it can be easy to revert to a command-and-control model of leadership, adapting to the latest policy directive rather than thinking, freely and creatively, about what the sector can be.
Nevertheless, as the fellows clearly argue, it is important that leaders and staff find time and space to be creative and to take risks, while helping develop workplaces which are characterised by trust and collaboration and contributing to the formation of policy that is informed, intelligent and long-term.
With so much pressure on further education to do more with less and to contribute to UK productivity and economic renewal, the challenge to the sector to make itself heard and understood amidst so much noise and pre-spending review anxiety, has never been greater. The fellowships have a crucial role to play in helping FE tell its story and shape its own future.
Paul Stanistreet is an independent writer and editor. He blogs here.