You’d be hard pressed to find a less fashionable cause in education right now than Further Education. There are a variety of metaphors used for this lowly status - ‘the Cinderella sector’ or ‘the poor relation’ - and it’s a common gripe among FE workers that problems they have to deal with receive hardly any attention in comparison with similar issues in schools and universities.
Workers at Lambeth College are currently doing their bit to try and raise awareness of some of these issues; they are on indefinite strike over new contracts recently imposed by college management, which worsen staff terms and conditions and include cuts to holiday and sick pay.
Of course, nobody should accept such attacks and for this alone - as well as for the fantastically bold move of going on indefinite strike - the Lambeth College workers should be supported. But these contracts don’t exist in isolation and need to be seen in the context of other changes happening both at the college and in FE more widely. We can expect to see similar actions popping up in other colleges in the coming months, because the sector as a whole is being completely hammered by funding cuts (20% over the next two years) with management choosing to make their savings through cuts to jobs, conditions and provision (rather than their own salaries).
I’ve written that first paragraph assuming that people know what FE is, though the truth is that a lot of people don’t and, even if they do, aren't very interested. FE is not a world that many people in the media or political class come into contact with and the reason you don’t find many members of the commentariat championing this sector is probably because they’ve not had much to do with it. FE colleges are a resource for people without much social and economic power: excluded school kids, people who failed their GCSEs, immigrants who don’t speak English, adults with learning disabilities, people on unemployment benefits. All this is what once might have been known as community education - a vibrant sector that creates spaces for all kinds of people to come and get their “second chance” (or in some cases their first chance) and to learn in the broadest sense, not just in a way that is defined by targets and employability and a person’s measurable value to the economy.
This broad and inclusive ethos of community education, however, is not one that fits in with current government educational agendas and there are seemingly very few college bosses who are prepared to stick their head above the parapet and defend it for their staff and students. On a national level we have already seen the stripping of funding for those over 24 wanting to study beyond Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) with the introduction of FE Loans, a scheme which may well be extended, either by level or by age and which places in serious jeopardy the principle of free adult education. At Lambeth we see a management imposing, with minimal consultation, a very specific vision of the type of institution they want. Money has been poured into the college’s Clapham centre for expensive vocational facilities, while Lambeth College’s Brixton site, in a poorer (but rapidly gentrifying) area of the borough where there is arguably more need, is being sold off to the DfE for use as a free school. (The college will maintain a presence on this site but it will be a third of the size of what was there before and the college no longer own it.) Of course there is nothing wrong with vocational courses - this has, after all, always been a strong focus of the FE sector - but when investment in these things comes at the expense of other areas there is a problem. Currently there is large provision for ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and LLDD (Learners with learning difficulties and disabilities) at the Brixton site and there is some uncertainty about what will happen to these areas.
Defending the decision to sell off this land, Lambeth College principal Mark Silverman has said that the new, smaller Brixton centre “will enhance the college’s already close links with Jobcentre Plus and Lambeth Council.” This points at a growing trend within the FE sector for colleges to take on contracts for JCP-funded employability courses. There is much debate about these courses within the sector, with many arguing that if they are going to exist it is better that they take place in colleges rather than private training providers. Others argue that colleges are becoming agents for JCP’s cruel sanctions regime and there are further concerns about the ways this new provision may be used to casualise the workforce (currently a huge problem in the sector) and undermine working conditions through the use of non-teaching staff. It is certainly a trend to be wary of as, coupled with the enormous cuts being made, it could turn large sections of FE provision into a cipher for government welfare-to-work and employability agendas. Colleges that are already feeling the squeeze may well be increasingly pressured into taking these contracts on.
And so we can see how funding cuts to further education are reshaping communities, not as obviously or directly as house prices, the quickest and most obvious gentrifying force, but in a way that’s impossible to deny. If we think of gentrification as a process whereby poorer communities are excluded from an area, then taking away a local college or providing ever narrower paths for people to follow at this college is a very clear way this can happen. Nobody in government is proposing to do away with FE altogether - if they did we might even get something approaching a public outcry - rather there is something more sinister happening. Provision is being reduced and/ or part-privatised, buildings are being sold off, redundancies are being made, wages are being cut, terms and conditions are being attacked, the workforce is being casualised. As well as a recently announced programme of redundancies at Lambeth (the consultation period for which coincideds with the indefinite strike action), massive job cuts have been announced at Lewisham and Southwark College (LeSoCo) and Hackney College. These are only a few examples and do not cover the whole range of cuts hitting colleges across the country.
Taking all this into account, FE looks like something of an intersection point for many contemporary concerns for the left: welfare sanctions, education cuts, privatisation, employment precarity, gentrification. Despite all this doom and gloom, though, there is still huge amounts of energy and commitment in the sector. Space is being created around these issues to debate the kind of further and adult education we want – there was an event about the cuts at LeSoCo on Tuesday 17th June, and will be a workshop as part of The Spark in London on Friday the 20th of June and a conference organised by Lambeth Strike on 4th July. FE colleges remain some of the most fantastically diverse communities you will ever spend time in. They are still - and can remain - vibrant spaces, but only if we recognise that further and adult education is something that actually matters.