Haunted by the soubriquet ‘Cinderella sector’, further education occupies an uneasy no-man’s-land between schools and universities in society’s thinking, when society thinks of it at all. It is often described as difficult to define; hardly, since it encompasses all education post-school (even when school finishes early) and pre-university (plenty of post-degree professional education also happens in FE). It takes place in massive colleges and smaller ones, in communities, prisons, private companies (McDonald’s apprenticeship?) and the third sector. Some form of education survives within each context, despite the indignities of funding cuts, forced mergers and professional deregulation. Workforces are slashed, zero-hours contracts proliferate – at the lower end of the hierarchy, that is; at the top you’re more likely to see six-figure salaries. Combine this problematic structure with a managerialist culture, where ‘outstanding’ is the only acceptable outcome, and you’ll find FE in the eye of a perfect storm, tied hopelessly to the mast.

In desperate times, civilizations have always needed a hero. FE’s mistake was choosing the wrong archetype, celebrating X-Factor style ‘tragic life story’ over actual achievement, where the destination of a ‘learner’ (I personally loathe this word) is read through their past. This is not good help, since it insists on gratitude: an act, in itself, of inequality. Peddling this narrative sustains FE (so far), but twists it round a spiral away from empowerment and towards rescuing people not like ‘us’ – then parading a chosen few at awards ceremonies (understandably beloved to a sector in desperate need of a party).

There is the wicked problem – the fundamental inequalities of an education sector where high achievers are only passing through (sixth form) while ‘other people’s children’ are stuck in a revolving, disempowering door of GCSE failures and apprenticeship admissions, before being turfed out into (at best) precarious work. It is enacted in pay and power differentials between chief executives of multi-college trusts and contracted out, zero-hours cleaners. It plays out in other tiny, infantilising ways: different coloured lanyards, micro-management, excessive digital security, ‘behaviour management’ tropes, the ever-so-slightly patronising tone of the phrase, “my learners”.

The vital narrative is not the tragic s/hero, but the anti-hero, the worker bee, the dancing princess. The superb pockets of good help in FE are being driven by educators looking outside of their organisations: on Twitter, through collaborative research projects and in the pages of books, extraordinary in itself as the culture of FE has been anti-intellectual for at least the last twenty years. These are not (usually) organised networks, but constellations of practice which form and reform, gathering strength and inspiration, turning the Cinderella metaphor on its head. This is where change happens in FE, enabled by senior leaders who smooth out spaces for mavericks to let new practices in (even if, occasionally, they make mistakes); leaders who embrace iconoclasm and don’t need micro-control. New initiatives are enabled by research informed practice – not the strait-jacket ‘evidence-base’ which translates human interaction into effect sizes, but a grounded approach that allows for growth and change.

The most significant enabler of good help in recent times has been the emergence in FE of anti-heroic, practitioner-led research, seeded by sensible funding from the Education and Training Foundation and amplified by research networks such as TELL, ARPCE, LSRN and the #FEResearchMeet series of events. Twitter is significant – the majority of adult educators are probably not on Twitter, senior leadership may not be, but at the dancing princess level it has been the single most effective channel around which fresh thinking has mobilised.

Despite promising signs – interventions that co-write genuine equality back into the student experience – how this will translate into rewiring persistent narratives is yet to be observed. There are influential, dated attitudes in FE – a tempting go-backery – which hark back to a mythical golden age, there are enthusiastic marketeers and there is also anger at the current mess which, although justified, sometimes obscures possibilities for new thinking to emerge: despite the lightening bolt of Covid-19. The UK education system is so effective at reproducing inequalities, it is no surprise to learn that civil servants have little direct experience of FE and the dancing princesses do not have the ear of policy makers, who listen to ‘experts’ – often retired senior leaders, talking of now.

Let FE activists keep doing what they do. Meanwhile, we should start by making a bridge between policy and practice. The dancing princesses have many of the answers, but they only articulate these in spaces where policy makers do not attend. Students also see alternatives which they don’t articulate in hierarchies of inequality; student panels where most people are playing a game. Opportunities for co-construction need equality-building, pro-social facilitation to let in the new.

For students to be powerful actors in their own lives, educators have to feel powerful – power from within, not power over those they teach. Genuine equality is the essence of the change that needs to come. Sixty years ago, Alan Sillitoe wrote words which should ring loud in the atriums, training rooms, online meeting spaces and community centres of FE:

“…maybe as soon as you get the whip hand over somebody you go dead.”


Lou Mycroft is a Thinking Environment facilitator, writer, public speaker, coach and co-founder of the #JoyFE movement.    


Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Lou Mycroft