What would I tell the Prime Minister about FE?


This blog was first published in TES FE, May 2021

Here’s the scenario: you’ve got five minutes with the prime minister, the chancellor or an influential employer. What do you say about colleges? What’s your overall message? What is the one thing you’d want them to take away from the five minutes?

Those of us working in further education will unanimously agree that the lengths and depths of our stories will not fit into five minutes. The stories of our celebrations, our hardships, our battles, wars and connections.

Further education is a social movement, constructed by representatives of every industry you could find fuelling our economy, our culture and our communities. Further education is a shared experience. It is a vast tapestry of diverse threads woven together in common purpose; to succeed.

I would like to tell our prime minister about an experience during my first week working in an English FE college. I was teaching a class of 16-to 18-year-olds. They were in their second year of a level 3 qualification, and so it had occurred to me that they were likely more familiar with the system and its nuances than I was at this point. I did not have to wait long for this theory to be confirmed.

A sudden loud crash spun me from the whiteboard to the door, where a student, who I didn’t recognise, had unexpectedly appeared. He had fallen against the door from the corridor with such force that the night latch lock had burst from its frame and he now lay on the floor over the threshold. The door shuddered in its hinges before repeatedly ricocheting off the young man, who was now moving violently.

At the exact moment of impact, my learners had leapt from their seats, upending chairs and assuming roles. They snapped into action, like a silent drill team, delegating duties, crafting resources from materials around them, moving through the room with a calm sense of purpose and generally ignoring me. This was for the best, as I was frozen by the whiteboard, pen poised mid sentence and, undoubtedly, looking dazed and useless. 

The learner who had appeared so suddenly had epilepsy. He was experiencing a seizure, of which he had several a day. My own class slipped cushioning jumpers under his head, threw open windows, held the door ajar, cleared space and prepared a glass of water. One spoke comfortingly to him while others kept a safe distance, with a close and quiet eye on proceedings should they be needed. This entire game plan had manifested in the time it took me to realise what was happening.

I would later learn that the student who crashed through our door had more than once been asked to disembark the bus to college because the driver had believed his seizures to be signs of intoxication. None of the adult passengers around him had come to his aid, and so he had left, calling college while he awaited the next bus to say he might be a little late.

I would like to tell the prime minister about the time I marked students’ homework in the local hospital’s A&E room, while the learner I had brought with me was assessed by the mental health crisis team.

I would like to tell the prime minister that, as is often found in FE environments, a large number of our learners have direct lived experience of poverty. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of our enrolled students come to us from the city’s 10 per cent lowest income households. And yet, twice a year, before Christmas and summer mark the end of term, I discover gifts perched on my desk, or am ceremoniously presented with them in class. From chocolates to Harry Potter socks, colouring books and coffees, the sentiment is truly cherished and their gratitude the greatest gift.

I would like to tell the prime minister about the time a young man arrived in my class and introduced himself in fractured sentences. Gradually we pieced together his journey into our classrooms. He had arrived alone as a young refugee, having been forced to brave a dangerous passage to escape persecution. During his studies, he was denied residency and we were told to prepare for his potential deportation. The news reached his peers and, as I entered my classroom, their distress was tangible. They were silent and motionless, wide-eyed and desperate for answers to questions they weren’t able to articulate. I asked what they would like to do. They looked thrown, as though wary of a potential trick question, and asked what they could do.

I gazed around the room as I considered my answer. I marvelled at the resilience they had demonstrated just to bring their feet through my door. To break away from the comfort of routine, to recognise their strengths and arrive here, at our college, shrouded in the unknown, to refine a specialism for an anticipated future.

I told them there was nothing they couldn’t do. I did not have to wait long for this theory to be confirmed.

A petition gathered tens of thousands of signatures and showed them the power of a single voice in sparking a movement. Gentle, hopeful walks through their home city showed them the power of collaborative action. Arriving at the appeal hearing in coaches to show peaceful solidarity with their friend and classmate, they smiled so broadly, and charmed the security guards so completely, that they were ushered into the courthouse. They were given their own viewing room, where they witnessed the exceptional consequences of their influence. They cheered, cried, hugged and sang all the way back to college. They embraced their friend, classmate and fellow resident with unfiltered gratitude for his presence, and I once again marvelled at their collective potential.

This is a very small sample of stories from the FE sector. I am only one educator; these stories are from only one college. We are a powerful, nationwide movement bursting at the seams with stories that deserve to be heard, not just by our prime minister but by the nation.