The sector I love is fighting back

AS WE WELCOME a week to celebrate all that is wonderful about our Colleges I have spent a little time wondering how we got here.

I’ve worked in colleges for exactly 21 years – since October 1997 – and I never imagined that in October 2018 I would be marching on Parliament to demand a better deal for our post-16 students!

How on earth have we arrived here, at a place where such action is necessary?

There is no point in repeating what Tom Starkey has written here as he is spot on. The constant fiddling whilst Rome burned and colleges started to run out of money due to huge cuts and constant change needs no further discussion really because it seems that finally the sector has got the bit between its teeth. Thank goodnesss!

But it all feels very Groundhog Day as I seem to have been talking about this forever.

I’m used to being branded a bit of a maverick manager but actually this is not particularly accurate. Yes, I do question/argue/want to discuss but not to be awkward. Anyone who thinks this absolutely does not understand me. My questioning has always come from a place of loyalty to those I work with and for, to my colleagues, my staff team and absolutely for my students.

I’ve spent my professional life putting my head above the parapet and calling out the Emperor in his new clothes but it is always in pursuit of something better for my staff and students.

(Apologies for all the clichés but they so perfectly describe our dilemma!)

The point I want to make during this significant week for all our colleges is this. Never underestimate the power of one question, of one action, of something which may seem quite small but might actually, potentially, have a huge ripple effect.

We see this effect in teaching every day and it can be easy to forget that a look, a word, a gesture can seem insignificant to us but might make all the difference to the student or colleague we are working with.

I have been really touched by comments from some of my ex-students when I asked them if they would support my campaign to win an election to the Post-16 Executive seat for the National Education Union.

They have all told me of something I said or did that changed their lives. Wow. That is really powerful and to be fair it is what my colleagues in FE do every single day.

So we need to harness that power, to remember that College staff have a voice and we WILL be heard. Not only will we be heard but we will make sure that what we do every day is properly funded because our students deserve nothing less.

Here’s an example of how one comment could have made a difference… I am in no way claiming in the story to follow that what I said had a real impact but the point is… who knows? So let me share it with you.

I attended the Association of Colleges annual conference in November 2017 and I asked a question during a discussion about the Government’s forced GCSE resit policy at FE colleges.

The room was full of senior leaders, the AoC President and the General Secretary of at least one Education Union. Most present agreed the policy is flawed, but they felt it had to be implemented as funding depended on it.

My contribution to proceedings caused a bit of a stir.

I made the point that if all College Principals refused to “play the game” because it was detrimental to some students, then the Government would have little choice other than to become more flexible.

There was, albeit briefly, silence.

Someone started to clap, then a second person joined in… I pointed out that the people who attended Conference have the collective gravitas to challenge a policy that is very damaging to some young people.

I said they were the leaders with the power to make a difference and I asked if all colleges refused to enact the policy, was there any realistic possibility that the Government would refuse to fund all of them?

Would they all be forced to close down? I suggested it would be a real wake-up call, a powerful message to the Department for Education.

Since then I know of a Senior Leader at a very large college who has started a parliamentary petition here against forced GCSE resits.

And here we are today.

At the start of #LoveOurColleges week supported by the AoC, UCU, NEU, AMiE , ASCL, GMB, TUC, Unison, the NUS and many thousands of others who recognise the incredible work colleges do.

The sector I love is fighting back.

We truly never know 100% whether what we say or do makes a difference, or how much impact it has, but I believe that sometimes, just sometimes, it can change the world.