Draft – working paper please do not cite Comments welcome –
email@example.com Paper presented to annual conference British Educational Research Association, UMIST 16th – 18th September 2004
AbstractThe incorporation of English Further Education (FE) Colleges in 1993 has been repeatedly described as radically altering working conditions and dramatically reducing the status of teaching staff. We argue that FE professionalism has always been contested. Also, the basic nature of that contest, which lies between external and largely instrumental pressures and internal beliefs about education and the practice of teaching, endures both pre and post college incorporation, in 1993. However, there have been two significant changes. Prior to 1993, the main external pressures came from the demands of employers and the local educational market place. Since 1993, though such pressures remain, they have been added to and arguably eclipsed by additional pressures from government policies towards governance, funding, inspection and curriculum. Though these new pressures result in similar tensions with internal views of professional performance, the pressures are more all pervasive and less stable than in previous times.
Introduction ‘FE has no past and no future. Only a present.’ (Tony Scaife, personal communication)
Tony Scaife is an FE practitioner, who has been seconded for two days a week to work on the Transforming Learning cultures in FE (TLC) project. He made this comment when some of us were discussing the ways in which colleges cope with key events, such as a major external inspection of college provision, a significant change in funding regulations, or in examination or assessment requirements. What he meant by this is that FE colleges and many of their staff survive by reacting to each new situation, largely bracketing off even the recent past, and working as if the new conditions will continue indefinitely, even if many people know or suspect that further changes will soon overtake them.
This comment exemplifies the issues we examine in this paper. It broadly fits with a common view in the literature, that English FE is somehow completely different now from its earlier conditions. There is a past, but it has little to do with the present. The statement can also be taken as an indicator of the apparent loss of professional autonomy and control that some commentators see as typifying English FE since about 1993. In re-examining these issues, we have focussed on analysing the ways in which FE professionalism or professionality have been researched and written about both pre and post the 1993 watershed. In so doing, we have attempted to integrate professional experience and academic expertise – adopting both insider and outsider perspectives.1 From this hopefully integrated perspective, we first briefly describe the current nature of FE, and the significance of incorporation for those readers who are unfamiliar with it. Next, we analyse the ways in which post-incorporation professionalism has been addressed in the literature. This is followed by an analysis of arguably the only major study of FE professionalism from the pre-1993 era, by Gleeson and Mardle (1980). We then develop and explore the value of Stronach et al’s (2002) concepts of ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ as a means of making sense of the current and past situations. We conclude that tensions between what could be termed economies of performance and ecologies of practice have formed an enduring and ever-present feature of that professionalism. However, the post-1993 introduction of particular forms of tight government regulation has further intensified the external pressures and added greater instability. For these reasons, FE professionalism is indeed, as many other commentators suggest, more difficult to sustain than was the case in earlier times.
English Further Education, since 1993 There are just over 300 FE colleges in England. They cater for large numbers of full and part-time students, aged between 14 and 90, though with a preponderance of those between about 16 and 25. Many of the courses offered are vocational, and FE is arguably the main location of vocational education and training (VET) in England. However, colleges also teach many academic courses, such as A levels. They teach all levels and abilities, from those with special educational needs through to higher education. However, if we exclude specialist sixth form colleges, the bulk of the students in FE are taking some form of second chance. That is, they have left school dissatisfied or even demoralised, and see FE as an alternative way back into education and learning. FE colleges also respond to the education and training needs of local and national employers.
Before the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, FE colleges were owned and controlled by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). These were elected bodies, responsible for public educational provision in their local area. Though most of their funding and efforts focussed on schools, LEAs saw FE colleges and also polytechnics (regionally based largely vocational higher education providers) as key parts of their provision. As has been explained elsewhere (Avis et al, 1996; Ainley and Bailey, 1997) the then Conservative government introduced radical changes to the ownership and management of FE. The twin drivers were a belief in market forces as the best means of driving up quality and efficiency of educational provision, and a political determination to reduce the power and influence of LEAs, many of which were then controlled by either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. The result was what is commonly referred to as ‘incorporation’. The 1992 Act freed colleges from LEA control. They became independent institutions, funded by a government created quango, the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC). In this new era, there were three prime control mechanisms. Firstly, there came a plethora of often detailed and prescriptive government regulations. Secondly, the FEFC and its more recent successor, The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), established complex and frequently changing financial and funding mechanisms, which directly linked almost all college funding to the recruitment, retention and achievement of students. Thirdly, there was an imposed external inspection system, which has also changed several times in the last 10 years. There have been parallel changes in college management approaches, resulting, amongst other things, in dramatic and significant changes on conditions of service of almost all FE staff. This is the context, then, in which changing FE professionalism has been discussed, in the academic literature.
The ongoing reconstruction of FE practitioner identity is inextricably linked to the development of the sector in relation to a dominant social and political discourse of audit (Power, 1997, Strahern, 2000) underpinning this increasing state intervention. A host of agencies have been involved, including: the FEFC, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), the Further Education National Training Organisation (FENTO) and, more recently, LSC, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTD) and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI). The mechanisms of these bodies and the imposition of accountability technologies to measure professional performance and achievement are inextricably linked. Shifting relationships between regulatory/funding bodies, competition and the marketisation of FE have redefined and extended the focus of practitioner responsibilities.
More recent developments in FE professionalism mirror correspondingly contemporary shifts towards an increasingly widening interventionist policy development across public services (Exworthy and Halford 1999). Similarly, unchallenged New Right assumptions prioritising consumerism, market hegemony and managerialism in educational reform have underpinned the policy context of FE practice (Avis 1997). Notional dimensions of inclusion and community have been tagged on since the arrival of New Labour to government (Hyland 2002) but ‘a particular understanding of global economic relations’ (Avis 1997: 243) gives precedence to the market. This is true even with respect to aspects of post-compulsory education and training (PCET) apparently grounded in social justice (Avis 1997: 246). The conditions and status of FE practitioner professionalism must then be understood with reference to policy rhetoric and discourse that legitimises the direction of that intervention. In a real sense, however, the most vital function of the FE practitioner remains intact. Teaching students probably still constitutes the major part of professional responsibility for most FE staff.
Inevitably, conditions of employment across education have also been widely affected by such policy intervention and the impact of market driven economic priorities, in ways that have also been documented with respect to higher education.
The number of core, full-time and permanent jobs has declined, while the
periphery of short-term contract employees and freelance sub-contractors
Since the educational reforms implemented in 1993 FE staff have become increasingly located within similarly flexible, high risk and individually competitive sets of workforce relations (Ainley and Bailey 1997; Hyland and Merrill 2003). Widening participation initiatives, curricula reforms and revised employment conditions for staff are all defined in the same language of individual flexibility and performance. Policy intervention and the increasing application of commercial principles and discourse have increased simultaneously in FE. But then further education has always been shaped by factors outside of its direct control, most importantly by wider socio-economic priorities.
Incorporation placed a compulsion upon individual college senior management teams to secure and develop new sources of finance, in order to remain solvent and compete on a commercial basis with other colleges and providers. Public funding for colleges was reduced through a policy of convergence whereby all providers were forced to work towards a standard unit value of funding for students, which was lower than that previously experienced in many colleges. The introduction of standard units directly allocated funding to individual student performance. By extension, practitioner success became measurable against the recruitment, retention and achievement of students on their programmes (Ainley and Bailey 1997). The FEFC, also responsible for inspecting quality of provision, could retrieve monies not auditable against recruitment, retention and achievement performance criteria. Consequently, practitioners’ work quickly became focused upon meeting the requirements of the new funding arrangements. In order to ensure that programmes could satisfy the external bureaucratic requirements of centrally administered funding, organisational quality tracking systems were introduced. Practitioners’ performance became measured by colleges against these systems, as well as against national benchmark statistics. Wider social/policy trends prioritising accountability and audit culture have been observed and in this sense the mechanistic character of FE emerging after incorporation is not unique in relation to the wider public sector (Power 1997).
Ainley and Bailey (1997) present the impact of educational reform on FE with reference to two FE colleges that are presented as being, if not actually ‘representative’ of the sector’s diversity, at least ‘indicative’ of it (Ainley and Bailey 1997: xii). Interviews were conducted with managers, students and teachers shortly after incorporation, exploring the critical impact of the reformed funding mechanism. This is argued to be at the core of every level of transformation across the sector (Ainley and Bailey 1997: ix). Conflicting versions of the nature and consequences of the process are presented as divided between ordinary practitioners on the one hand and students and managers on the other. Generally speaking, lecturing staff describe negative views of both the process and detail of reform. Conversely, managers and students indicate significant improvements in the quality and efficiency of provision. Organisationally, college management structures were streamlined, with fewer managerial positions remaining at higher levels. Such positions that remained functioned to address the business priorities of new corporate college expansion. This also included management of the increased demands for academic and vocational programme information collected through management information systems (MIS) to meet FEFC and other stage agencies’ requirements. The day-to-day management of teaching and learning with respect to internal performance criteria, course review and evaluation at programme level, became increasingly incorporated into lecturer scale workloads. This was in spite of a general increase in student on-programme numbers and expanded curricula and assessment demands for lecturers (Ainley and Bailey 1997).
Perhaps most importantly with respect to lecturers’ professional status, in spite of the extension to their workloads, previously established national agreements in relation to pay, annual leave and working conditions were no longer necessarily applicable. Institutions were free to abandon old conditions of service in favour of their own revised employment contract frameworks (Ainley and Bailey 1997). Such developments and the subsequent period of ongoing industrial conflict generated by these reforms cannot easily be separated from the mechanics of funding and cost cutting.
The Pre-Incorporation Professional Landscape of FE The impact of these reforms is hard to exaggerate with respect to the day-to-day responsibilities of professionals and the conditions of staff employment. However, before its impact on professionalism is properly evaluated, we need to briefly examine the nature of that professionalism in earlier times. To do that, we turn to a significant study of that period, conducted by Gleeson and Mardle, in 1980.
Gleeson and Mardle (1980: vii) describe their study as an attempt to 'understand the relationship between a college of further education and its local industrial environment'. The research explores FE colleges' traditional association with technical education and apprenticeship style industrial training by focusing upon a single institution and distinguishing between the conflicting interests of education, training and work. Ultimately the study proposes that an uncomfortable 'co-existence' (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: viii) is observable. Compromise is nevertheless characterised by departmental competition and conflict with respect to pedagogical values. The authors contend that one of the major functions of further education for craft apprentices is with regard to its structural role in reinforcing and maintaining 'the existing social relations of production' (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 146). Thus FE disguised the reality of employer/ apprentice relations (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 146-147).
Apprenticeship emerges in the research as a controlling structure. Learners appeared to have been commodified. Further education did not simply facilitate this process but arguably attempted to legitimise the process, in spite of any apparent contradiction with regard to some practitioners' declared educational objectives' (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 151). In fact practitioners’ accounts revealed quite pragmatic attitudes towards teaching and even their vocational identification with respect to the craft area (mining) served by the college.
I thought I’d give it a try.
Well, it was a combination of events really.
I came into teaching through a general disillusionment with the Coal Board.
Interviews with lecturers - Gleeson and Mardle (1980)
The system driven by the imperatives of a production process rather than by any underpinning commitment to general educational values, represents an induction into an established industrial hierarchy that was largely unchallenged by the educational process. This appeared to be reinforced by the necessity of trainees obtaining craft qualifications through college. Although increasingly obsolete with regard to actual job roles, the acquisition of these qualifications nevertheless served to underpin the demarcation of types of workers observed in relation to employment within the mining industry (Gleeson and Mardle1980: 148). FE professional practice with respect to apprenticeship training therefore appeared to be inductive rather than educational, replicating and legitimating existing sets of industrial relations, determined outside the institution. Exploring two quite different departments, Mining and Liberal Studies, entirely opposed ideological understandings of the purpose and delivery of technical training within FE emerged. However, the writers ultimately concluded that despite departmental conflicts with regard to resources, status and even educational objectives, practice was essentially vocational and largely shaped by external, industrial priorities. Student and teacher accounts demonstrated that a transmission approach to pedagogy as part of a wider socialisation into industrial attitudes and practices dominated the professional practice of the technical lecturers.
Even within the Department of Liberal Studies, apparently committed to values of general education and critical understandings of industrial social processes, practitioner accounts were marked by contradiction and the quite mixed approaches of staff. The study identified three distinct and apparently conflictual forms of practice between ‘liberals’, ‘radicals’ and ‘cowboys’ (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 109). The classification demonstrated the liberals as liasing very successfully with the technical priorities of the Department of Mining and the college as a whole. They were dominant with respect to the department and successfully incorporated the critical but ultimately collaborative support of the radicals, younger members of the teaching staff with apparently ideological reservations about the narrow curriculum and essentially ‘bourgeois’ purpose of technical education (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 107). Cowboys on the other hand were reported to expound genuinely progressive approaches and with respect to the dominant view were truly ‘deviants’ in their commitment to pedagogy and educational philosophy. In classroom practice, however, very little differentiation was observed with respect to the teaching of a generally uninterested student body and no real autonomy over the nature of the educational process was reported with respect to any of the teaching staff. This did not indicate that lecturers were not influenced by individual internalisations of beliefs but that these existed within and were contained by the particular constraints of departmental and organisation factors, as well as in relation to externally driven priorities. Individuals’ theories of educational philosophy within the Department of Liberal Studies helped lecturers to rationalise their own participation in the process to themselves and in this sense a complicated balance between competing influences was negotiated.
The paradox of fragmentation and conflict versus consensus is a recurring theme in the study and underlines the fragility of generalisation in representing the sector. Highly individualised understandings of FE practitioner professionalism are described within and across two departments but ultimately little more than a reification of ‘existing social relations of production’ is apparent (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 146). Departmentalised ideological conflicts and competition appear to be subsumed within the whole. Pre-incorporation professional practice in FE might therefore be understood with respect to the limited professional autonomy and conflict often presented in more recent studies. Continuity is apparent as well as change, despite the particular detail and the vast ranging upheaval since 1993. Gleeson and Mardle (1980) indicate that FE practitioners have long been subject to conflicting tensions and operating within limitations derived outside of their own control, which actually shape not only practice but practitioner understandings of that practice.
…in the last instance the structural parameters of college life actually
determine the conditions of teachers’ work. In this way autonomy is
relegated to a mere manifestation of false consciousness in a social setting
where capital holds an independent and causal control over both the
perceptions and activities of participants.
(Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 115)
Professional Transformation in Post- Incorporation Further Education
Despite the vast impact of the post incorporation reforms, the existing relationship between FE, market economics and local business priorities was not replaced. The previous development of FE outside of any centrally, policy driven, 'mainstream state education system' had long determined its close relationship with industry (Ainley and Bailey 1997: 7). Colleges had been left 'to take their own routes and devise their own futures' (Ainley and Bailey 1997: 11), although progress had inevitably always been inescapably tied to education/training and employment policy objectives. Fragmentation in the sector remains a direct consequence of locally determined provisions developing in response to specific and diverse industrial and population requirements as well as in response to policy. It is therefore unsurprising that vocational and industrial training priorities remained intact after incorporation. As a consequence of the enormous upheaval of sector expansion and changing working conditions, professional identities may appear to have changed beyond recognition. In broader terms, however, the turmoil might be better understood as a logical progression of the sector’s relationship to the ‘industrial environment’ (Gleeson and Mardle 1980), a shift rather than a revolution.
Previous to incorporation the characteristically 'unplanned' (Ainley and Bailey 1997: 9) growth in FE should also be understood as an ‘active’ rather than a passive process (Gleeson and Mardle 1980: 150). It is true that post-incorporation conditions have continued to accelerate expansion since 1993. The remit was always wide, however, with FE having over the years incorporated general academic education, adult returners, learners with special educational needs, the unemployed, refugees and short-term visitors to the UK. More recent developments reflect a continuing increase in educational competitiveness, driven by educational reform within a broader incorporation of public services into market relations. The decline of traditional core markets for student recruitment, for example of young students entering skilled manufacturing work, underpins diversification as a necessity. FE growth/priorities continue to be ultimately determined by economic rather than educational imperatives.
That colleges have followed diverse individualised paths; always 'to some extent' within 'a competitive market' (Ainley and Bailey 1997: 11) also contradicts any assertion that everything was transformed by incorporation. Attempting to apply a clear-cut before and after opposition to pre and post 1993 FE risks oversimplification of the sector in relation to wider policy contexts. Institutional development before incorporation depended not only upon locally determined industrial requirements but also upon the commitment and direct involvement of diverse local education authorities. Colleges have never been free of outside interference and fragmentation within the sector has been at least partially determined at local and regional levels by a lack of coherence with respect to different levels of support and expenditure. Decisions related to the minutiae of college management before incorporation were made by in excess of a hundred local education authorities, or 'more than a hundred mini-sectors' (Scott: 1995: 52). Such diversity may have actually contributed to compounding the sector's low professional status with respect to public perception; allegedly most easily impressed by 'clarity of purpose…clear-cut categories and single purpose institutions' (Ainley and Bailey 1997: 10-11).
In fact, as Gleeson and Mardle (1980) show, the character and purpose of professional practice in FE has always been largely shaped by external demands and the production process. Recently this has been characterised by an accelerated commercialisation and auditable accountability of the public sector. That shifts in professional practice have occurred and that new working conditions in FE have shaped that transformation is not disputed here. Recent work has clearly described the impact of change upon the day-to-day experience of lecturers in FE.
The work on lecturer stress and labour process reflects upon the changing nature of professionalism within Further Education. There are moves towards greater surveillance of teaching through self-assessment and similar practices, with increasing emphasis placed on team work, and the development of models of teaching and learning that apparently place the learner at the centre, rather than the teacher. These are all aspects of changes in the nature and form of teacher professionalism.
(Avis et al 2001: 64)
Managerialism, accountability and quality assurance have arguably challenged traditional definitions of autonomy and professional status (Ainley and Bailey 1997). On the one hand this is all unavoidably true but may still lead to oversimplification with respect to an underpinning continuity in the purpose and character of FE. Tension and contradiction in professional practice are apparent, Gleeson and Mardle (1980) suggest that was true before incorporation and it does not necessarily follow that new working relations inevitably frustrate all professional creativity. Understandings of professional status, identity and the development of these within the sector may ultimately reside in how practitioners themselves respond to existing and changing conditions. Simplistic oppositions drawn between managerial and practitioner interests are of limited value to understanding how FE professionals actively construct their working identities and roles rather than simply taking them on (Bloomer 1997). Even at senior management levels, ‘corporate managerialism is neither as complete or uncontested as it is sometimes portrayed’ (Gleeson 2001: 194). This may also be especially true with respect to the increasingly blurred boundaries between managerial and practitioner responsibilities now evident across the public sector (Exworthy and Halford 1999).
Within the context of ‘New Times’ (Quicke 1998, 2000, Whitty 2000), an emerging and redefined public sector professional identity has generated conflicting understandings. These may have been oversimplified as either distinctly negative in terms of a de-professionalisation, or as a more positive re-conceptualisation of practitioner identity in terms of re-professionalisation (Whitty 2000). Quicke (2000) defines 'new times' as demanding individual and organisational 'reflexivity' whereby values, identities and fundamental underlying principles are subjected to critical scrutiny (Quicke 2000: 299-300). However, the process necessitated by the pace and scale of current social transformation, remains a development of existing relations rather than a total break with the past.
The times we live in, the 'new times', are still modern times, albeit a new form
or phase of modernity, which might be called reflexive modernity.
Public scepticism of professional practice combined with market hegemony and managerialism has perhaps increasingly limited the scope of professional reflexivity outside restrictions imposed by the new conditions.
Without autonomy, they could not experiment or explore different approaches
to the production and reproduction of democratic communities in new social
conditions, since their own capacities for creativity and moral choice would be
The consequences are apparently irreconcilable understandings of professional practice, or 'competing versions' within the new conditions of public sector professionalism (Whitty 2000: 282). Individual perspectives may depend increasingly upon individual location within those emerging and redefined social relations.
The particular version different people support in practice will, of course
depend on their values and their broader political perspectives, as well as
the way in which they are positioned by the reforms.
(Whitty 2000: 282)
Some accounts of FE practitioners have suggested a qualitative divergence between managerial, student and lecturer perceptions with regard to post-incorporation reorganization (Ainley and Bailey 1997). Such discrepancies are proposed by Ainley and Bailey (1997) to imply fundamental conflicts of interest and contradictions between understandings of the purpose and character of FE provision. But such a view may be rather narrow in its scope. It is nevertheless worth exploring before the possibilities of more complex understandings of professionals’ stories are considered. It would be helpful at this point to also develop the argument with reference to professionalism, professional knowledge and professional autonomy. If the core of professional autonomy is perceived by professionals as being directly under threat from managerial and accountability technologies then what are its defining characteristics? And are the battle lines really drawn as immovably as some accounts (e.g. Ainley and Bailey 1997) imply?
Professional Autonomy vs. Technical Rationalism
Eraut proposes that traditional professional invulnerability to public scrutiny and the almost mysterious status of professional knowledge have become regarded as 'unacceptably patronizing' (Eraut 1994: 5).
The traditional ideology of professionalism uses the notion of specialist
expertise to justify the assumption that only the professional can determine
rather than client-centred, and clients did not have the social, pecuniary or
intellectual resources to challenge the professional's definition of the situation.
This position has been increasingly under attack from several directions.
(Eraut 1994: 5)
Professional practice has become increasingly subject to accusations of monopolization, self-interest and demands for government regulation and public accountability. Eraut acknowledges that government intervention has increased with respect to the education of professionals. However, as described at the outset of this paper, government control over public services has become especially marked. Eraut's (1994) conclusions with regard to the impact of this upon professionals’ perceptions of their revised status and roles do appear to support the reported experiences of FE lecturing staff in the Ainley and Bailey (1997) study:
Practices are increasingly changed to maximise performance on external
inspections and performance indicators, causing increasing alienation of
professional workers and weakening commitment to moral accountabilities.
(Eraut 1994: 241)
Eraut (1994, 2000) also indicates a growing discrepancy between traditional practitioner understandings of professional practice and the reality of practice. Increasingly, practitioners have become subject to the introduction of technically defined occupational/ professional standards. Prioritising of auditable technologies in regulating professional practice may certainly fail to recognise the complexity and tacit dimension of professional judgements and decision-making and it is in this respect that professional status and identity are seen to be most compromised, or even undermined. It may be possible to reduce 'what professionals do' to 'a list of processes' (Eraut 1994: 107) but a particular weakness of technical approaches towards measuring professional standards lies in their failure to even attempt to record operations exceeding the merely competent. That is to recognize higher levels of professional performance associated with expertise and excellence (Eraut 1994).
Other studies have also drawn attention to the deficiencies of competency-based approaches, specifically in reference to professional educational practice. Teacher professionalism and education generally may be undermined by ‘technical rationalism’ (Hodkinson 1997: 69). Increasingly the teacher’s role is reduced from one enjoying some autonomy with respect to curriculum delivery to that of a technician, monitored by and accountable to externally and organizationally determined assessment and quality systems. Prioritising of standardisation underpins the development of competency-based qualifications; this extends beyond the vocational to the professional (Hodkinson and Issitt 1995). Teaching standards prescribed for teachers by the Further Education National Training Organisation (FENTO) are one example of technically derived apparatus in FE. Another is the incorporation of the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) common inspection framework into colleges’ external inspection cycles.
Thus, performance measurement technologies have gained purchase at the same time that market relations have increasingly incorporated the public sector within an expanding consumer driven framework. The ‘marginalisation’ (Elliott and Hall 1994: 3) of pedagogical issues in FE practice has been widely reported. This is particularly true with reference to the impact of highly bureaucratic accountability systems upon teaching, professional identity, job satisfaction and practitioner commitment to a public service ethos (Ainley and Bailey 1997, Avis 1997, Avis et al 2001, Bathmaker 2001, Elliott 1996, Elliott 1998, Elliott and Crossley 1997, Gleeson and Shain 1999, Randle and Brady 1997, Shain and Gleeson 1999). This threat to the prioritisation of professional knowledge and judgement is not however limited to the FE sector and arguably reflects the much wider erosion of public service professional autonomy already referred to earlier in this paper. The loss of curricular autonomy for schoolteachers with respect to external inspection and the introduction of standardisation i.e. through a national curriculum, demonstrates similarly conflicting tensions. Increasing technicism and uniformity is demanded through the quantification of professional performance. The manager/lecturer hostility in FE lecturers’ accounts may appear to reinforce such typically polarised positions and other studies have also demonstrated the divisive impact of organisational restructuring. Certainly relations between different levels of practitioners and management have been observed to be characterised by tension. But this tension may be in spite of agreement about common principles with regard to the need for change.
Although supportive of many initiatives which were concerned to introduce
external accountability of lecturing practice and student performance, the
lecturers took issue with the managerialist implementation strategy, which
underplayed the centrality of the teaching and learning process.
(Elliott and Crossley 1997: 82)
The value of reform, often not simply objected to in principle by lecturers, may be contested with respect to the high handed, non-consultative imposition of policy shifts from outside the sector.
A lot of these ideas are good ideas - one's not against in terms of the
direction and their logic, but it's the constant introduction of one initiative after
another without the ability to work it through. [As a result], I think myself and
many of my colleagues - in fact probably the majority of colleagues if they
are honest - are in a state of some considerable fatigue and levels of morale
are very low, not because one disagrees with the initiatives but one basically
is sceptical about the sincerity and efficiency with which these initiatives are
put into practice.
(Interview with a tutor cited in Ainley and Bailey 1997: 70)
This is not necessarily new. The fact is that FE practitioners have historically been in a somewhat different situation to those in other educational sectors with respect to necessarily meeting the demands of external bodies. Gleeson and Mardle (1980) note a well-established responsiveness of FE to industrial requirements. Similarly, with regard to assessment and curriculum content, the sector has long been used to outside control and the external imposition of fixed requirements with regard to their curricula (Elliott 1996). It might be argued that in this context the loss of a previously enjoyed professional autonomy for FE lecturers is somewhat questionable as they have for some time been technicians with respect to their curricula being externally determined to some extent.
Re-Professionalisation and Creative Responses to Transformation in PracticeWhile it may be argued that managerialist approaches and audit technologies have impacted significantly upon FE professionalism, it may also be simplistic and unhelpful to understand current professional practice in terms of the helpless victimisation or spineless collaboration of lecturers in a managerialist plot (Bathmaker 2001). Creative and adaptive solutions towards incorporating a professional commitment to educational values into management priorities may be observed in both of the two main FE accounts described earlier. Pragmatic approaches to shifting working conditions suggest that passive acceptance or open non-collaboration are not the only or perhaps even the most likely responses to change. For example, a tactic of ‘strategic compliance’ has been ascribed to lower level FE managers (Shain and Gleeson 1999: 456). Remaining committed to traditional professional values, practitioners are engaged in an active re-professionalisation, reconstructing the practitioner role, managing accountability systems and underlying discourse without a complete shift in working practices. Some managers actually appear to divert particularly problematic changes away from lecturers (Shain and Gleeson 1999). More nuanced understandings of manager/practitioner relationships are possible and may be more practically useful in understanding complexity with regards to the scale of transformation across FE practice and the shifting rather than absolute character of change. They may also enable practitioners to actively renovate their professionalism. Some commentators have identified ‘hybrid’ manager/professional roles across social work, health care and educational public service practice (Exworthy and Halford 1999). These may increasingly supersede simplistic understandings of contemporary professional practitioner/ manager roles:
For many people engaged in professional activity it may become increasingly
inappropriate to ask whether they are a professional or a manager, for the
essential nature of their work lie in the combination of both elements.
(Causer and Exworthy1999: 101)
Management scrutiny of performance within professional practice is often carried out by individuals trained in the same specialist professional knowledge (Causer and Exworthy 1999). Dichotomies drawn between ‘altruistic’ professionals and self-interested and ‘conformist’ managers (Halford and Leonard 1999: 104) do not reflect the reality of contradictory and multiple working practices. They may also focus rather too much on drawing oppositions where a more clear focusing upon how contradictions are reconciled or at least merged over time to generate unpredictable
mutations in the ‘new managerialist’ public sector organisations
(Halford and Leonard 1999:120)
Multiple professional identities ‘compete and jostle with each other’ contingent upon particular circumstances (Halford and Leonard 1999: 120). The significance of tension experienced in the reconciliation of competing identities in order to remain within particular conditions of FE employment may be as true of the ultimately vocational lecturers in Gleeson and Mardle’s (1980) account and the harassed and highly calibrated staff in Ainley and Bailey’s (1997).
Understanding Complexity and Contradiction in FE Professional Practice
Practitioner accounts that problematise not only managerialist but also academic discourse are proposed here as being of potentially great value to deepening our understanding of professional practice in FE. In the absence of effective collaboration with either government or researchers, FE practitioners may be forced to make and construct professional identities for themselves (Bathmaker 2001). Few recent research studies have attempted to focus specifically upon the ‘lived experiences of lecturers in FE’ (Bathmaker 2001: 9). Bathmaker (2001) and Stronach et al (2002), writing about school teachers and nurses, propose that discourse derived outside of professional practice may pigeonhole professional experience for external rather than practitioner understanding. Both studies suggest that crude accounts of conflict between professional autonomy and creativity are also unlikely to either accurately reflect the detail of practice or subsequently engage practitioner involvement in any reconceptualisation of twenty-first century professional practice.
Stronach et al (2002) present complex stories derived from public service professionals in nursing and school teaching that defy understanding based upon a simple management/practitioner opposition. The study does not focus upon FE specifically but is of particular interest as it does prioritise the accounts of individual professionals over generalisation. The paper significantly criticises previous attempts to reduce professional experience to artificial and easily exploited categories. Instead, professional practice is understood in terms of diversity, or a ‘plurality’ of roles in relation to situated and localised individual professional practice (Stronach et al 2002: 118). It focuses upon the contradictory tensions experienced with respect to externally driven ‘economies of performance’ and internalised ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002: 109). These influences upon professional responses are themselves as complex and ultimately as individually contradictory as practitioner experience. The notion of ‘discrepant identities’ (Stronach et al 2002: 110) replaces rigidly defined professional representations, which have been created ‘emblematically’ (Stronach et al 2002: 111) to fit particular societal needs in depicting professional practitioners in stereotypical ways. The professional has been used symbolically with respect to polarities, in a tradition of ‘academic story-telling about professionalism’ (Stronach et al 2002: 113). Thus, recurring accounts of professional victimisation and redemption within educational research might be challenged as fundamentally flawed and idealised depictions of heroic struggle repaid by government and media molestation. The presentation of professional practitioners’ inconsistent and ‘broken stories’ (Stronach et al 2002: 125) offers depth and potentially greater understanding for researchers attempting to understand conflicting features of professional practice.
The presentation of tension between managerial and practitioner accounts in existing accounts of FE may appear to reinforce some fairly simplistic divisions between external accountability (restrictive and bad) and internalised professionalism (creative and good). However, many mixed messages about professional accountability, also characterised by uncertainty and pragmatism rather than by fixed and easy categorisation, permeate existing accounts of FE professionalism (Bathmaker 2001, Gleeson and Shain 1999, Shain and Gleeson 1999). Positive practitioner accounts of change in FE have emerged from studies, which nevertheless prioritise the negative interpretations of post incorporation practice without presenting individual practitioner accounts in detail (Ainley and Bailey 1997, Hyland and Merrill 2003). Individual stories are described where examples of accountability systems are in some circumstances viewed as clarifying responsibility and enabling effective participation in practice rather than simply eroding autonomy and creativity challenge oversimplification of FE professionalism and practice.
Stronach et al (2002) present ‘economies of performance’ as primarily driven by changing public sector funding and management, in schools and the health service. In these ‘new times’, services that had been previously largely immune to commercial and economic pressures, now found them central to their practice. However, as we have shown, FE as a sector, and the professionals working in it, have always been subjected to external commercial and economic constraints and opportunities. Gleeson and Mardle (1980) describe graphically the ways in which professionalism in the late 1970s was constructed out of conflict between external economic pressures and demands (economies of practice) and the aspirations and intentions of the tutors themselves (ecologies of practice). Arguably, therefore, the tensions that Stronach et al (2002) describe have always lain at the heart of FE professional identity and practice. In this sense, nothing much has changed.
What undeniably has changed, is the nature of the pressures within the ‘economies of performance’. At risk of our own over-simplification, three main changes can be identified. Firstly, because of the new funding mechanisms, government imposed policies and procedures exert much greater influence than in pre-incorporation times. Put differently, there are two economies of performance now – the commercial one, of employers and possible customers or clients, and the bureaucratic procedures of policy-driven audit. Secondly, many of the pressures within the audit economy, impact directly on conditions of service, in ways not experienced before. Thirdly, both sets of economy, but perhaps most especially the audit one, are subject to frequent change, and some of those changes can have a dramatic impact. Every modification to the detail of the funding mechanism creates new dangers, as well as opportunities. Without the underlying support of the old LEAs, colleges are vulnerable to sometimes severe financial fluctuation, which can and does result in increased workloads and redundancy.
In this context, the sorts of reworking of professional identity from within, that Stronach et al (2002) describe, will continue, but is arguably not enough. What seemed a suitable story in one term, may be wholly inadequate in the next. Even the most effective story is no protection against job loss. In the main TLC (FE) project, and in Goodrham’s research, we are collecting data about the changing nature of professional engagement, over several years. It is too soon to draw fully evidenced conclusions, but the comment by Tony Scaife, with which the paper opened, is relevant here. In some senses, the uncomfortable tension between economies of performance and ecologies of practice locates FE practice in each new present. Part of the story has to be constructed around features that are treated as fixed, even though everyone knows they are not. But beneath this flux, lies the deeper constants – of the nature of the struggle for professionalism itself.
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1 Goodrham, the main author, is employed by an FE college, as a teacher with some managerial responsibilities. He has been funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to study for his own PhD. This has entailed and facilitated his engagement with academic literature, recent and past. Hodkinson has never taught in FE, but has been researching and writing about it for about ten years. He is also the main supervisor for Goodrham’s PhD.