“We are (all) in this together, but we are not one and the same.” Rosi Braidotti, 2019.
Last week, in its fourth year, the #ReImagineFE19 conference attempted to reimagine FE across its whole complex, glorious landscape. I’m going to lay down some challenges in this rough and ready blog so it’s good to start in an affirmative place. Our three provocateurs – Katie Shaw, Palvinder Singh and Christina Donovan – and the ‘Voices of FE’ soundscape courtesy of @FETransforms – did everything necessary to send nine working groups off to do the business. We had set the convenors of each group an unprecedented task – fix the unfixable thing, be the visionaries who can not only save but recalibrate FE. This sounds like words, but as a member of the small conference organising committee I can promise you that, this fourth time around, the expectation was reimagine or bust.
The timing was perfect. Two years ago, along with Andrew Harden of UCU, I stood up at #ReImagineFE17 and claimed that FE was about to have its revolutionary moment. Well, reader, we were wrong. With a little more humility this time round, it’s possible to say that now – maybe – now is the moment. And the moment arrives as the gift of #FEResearch.
FE Research has always had a presence, through the patient existence of research-positive networks such as LSRN, TELL and ARPCE. There’s an honourable history of FE to HE escapology (no judgment there), fellow travellers who have not pulled up the ladder. And in recent years some FE-based research has been supported by the Education and Training Foundation through various initiatives. So FE-based research kept a foothold in some parts of the sector, though with the shift in priorities of the former NIACE (now the Learning and Work Institute) skills in the formerly well-researched adult and community learning workforce have fossilised**, whilst other contexts struggle to have research aspirations valued or even recognised by the organisation they work for.
The truth on the ground is that, unless individuals are personally investing in post-graduate programmes of education, research unconnected with the supported ETF programmes is patchy, often ignored and even undermined. There is no formal apprenticeship for FE researchers outside the traditional academic pathway and consequently research quality can be patchy too. Again – no judgement. Why would it not be? That academic apprenticeship is a heavy investment – of money, of graft, of time away from family life – and involves deep encounters with impostor syndrome that not everyone is up for, plus it can be counter-productive in those organisations where doing an MA (never mind an EdD/PhD) makes you too big for your boots. There’s an anti-intellectual streak a mile wide running through FE.
The ‘spontaneous’ emergence of the #FEResearchMap*** in the week before #ReImagineFE19 grew out of a rhizomatic history of connection whereby pools of research-interested people found each other on social media, and via existing and emerging networks. Organisations are like trees – hierarchical roots and branches – but a rhizome is more subtle and subversive, unexpected and difficult to control. Think of a fern, which returns to flourish even when you’ve dug it up, native bluebells carpeting the forest floor or lily of the valley popping up in the neighbour’s garden. I would say this of course but this rhizome first stirred back in 2015 with the publication of Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, a constellation of educators who hadn’t – haven’t – got cynical, eddies of activism which pooled around writing and research, bursts of energy as people shared their drive for a time and then moved on. The purpose was clear in a sense – ReImagining FE – but vague in application and constantly oppressed by the forces of compliance operating in both FE and HE.
The growth of interest in #FEResearchMeets, initially in Ashton-under-Lyne and Bedford and spreading across England, provided a focus, recently coinciding with intentional efforts via the #APConnect programme to network those in advanced practitioner or similar roles who had a can-do attitude and interest in research. The trajectory was evident: now is the time for interest in FE-based research to take flight. And although there was a specific, FE-research themed working group at #ReImagineFE19, talk of research ran like golden threads through every conversation.
Activism needs a catalyst and it is ironic that this recent surge in rhizomatic energy has been in the face of Ofsted’s desire to understand what’s happening in FE-based research. It must have come as a surprise to good people at Ofsted that a genuine attempt to reach out was met with such resistance. With hindsight, the sincere establishment of a research reference group comprising only HE-based researchers was a bit of an open goal in a context where there is so much residual resentment about the spectre of Ofsted and how quality assurance is used as a stick to beat in some FE organisations. Collectively we need to move beyond this now. A plea to the sector to provide evidence of FE-based research initiatives is proof enough to me that the the offer of dialogue is a trustworthy one (even if I didn’t know the people involved to be trustable).
So the joyful energy of this moment is not without danger and there was a sense of this at #ReImagineFE19. Christina Donovan’s provocation at the start of the day was about freeing the creative and immanent potential of trust in our working relationships but almost as soon as the map was published, mistrust crept in. Those of us who identify with FE but not with a single FE institution wondered where we fitted, making the (incorrect) assumption in some cases that we were being excluded and perhaps rightly (though a little righteously) remembering those £ks and family hours lost to our research training: ‘we know best!’ In response – what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the ‘fetish of assertion’ (taking up a position and then defending it) – a grievance amongst those of us based in FE organisations that we were OK to play out with as long as we were the junior partner was maybe a little defensive, given genuine and generous partnerships between fellow travellers in research. Honestly, some of my best friends work in universities, but that doesn’t mean I want to work in one myself.
Friends, we have got to stop this. Listen to ourselves. Practice a personal affirmative ethics in our relations with one another: look for the joy in diversity, not the fear. Like-values are worth seeking out. Like-minds keep our thinking within the filter bubble. As Rosi Braidotti writes, “We are not all the same, but we are all in this together.” It is time to notice not our differences, but what we have in common. Otherwise the moment will pass and it will be a lifetime before it comes around again. As my friend Andrew Harden said, we have opportunity in this interregnum. All it will take for some in FE to return to complacent thinking is for BoJo’s education minister to throw FE a bone.
There are practical considerations. There is very little by way of a research training pathway in FE, aside from the honourable ETF funded opportunities and the traditional academic route to EdD/PhD via degree and Masters study. Organisations are not always prepared to support these routes with any form of remission or financial assistance (worth remembering here the huge number of FE educators on term-time/sessional/zero hours contracts). So many of the close practice enquiries that lead to interesting findings inevitably lack the rigour of an intentional framework of methodology or ethics because training is just not available. This should be easy to deal with – we are educators, right? We can teach one another (which is exactly what COOCs was set up for, by the way). Passing research skills forward is another way of not pulling up the ladder.
We also need a repository or at least an up-to-date digital catalogue of where research can be found. Research-active people will see things released on Twitter, will be savvy about using academia.edu and Researchgate and will watch out for journals such as ARPCE (and will still miss things) but most FE practitioners are not research-active in this sense. Having worked in the silos of FE myself, I had to start running an HE programme before I began to realise that everything really *wasn’t* stored on the Excellence Gateway, as I’d been led to believe. It’s actually quite difficult to even discuss this in an un-siloed space, because so many assumptions are made around language (all parties guilty of impenetrable acronyms) and the hegemony of ‘how it works’. The truth is that research on and in FE is incredibly difficult to pull together, as we have discovered recently. These misunderstandings need weeding out if we are to present a coherent cartography.
This began as an appreciation of #ReImagineFE19 (and ended as a rant) so why is #FEResearch so important right now? For me it’s because this is the first rallying point for the whole sector that we’ve ever had. Policymakers tell us that FE does not speak up for itself and the problem has been – always – not that we’ve not had enough to say, but that like any diverse population we’ve had too much to say, to be heard. So it’s easier not to listen. But now we are saying very clear, solution-focused things and Ofsted are listening and the Association of Colleges are listening and, after all, those organisations – just like ours – are made up of human beings who are bothered enough about FE to work for it. It’s time, my dear friends and dancing princesses, to start listening to one another.
*Not The Beatles (sorry Christina Donovan) – I’m channelling another Summer of Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dFKWpJKDwo
**This became evident during the Department for Education’s Community Learning and Mental Health Research 2015-17. Interested? Drop me a line and I’ll share ‘Not Them But Us’, the educators’ survey, with you.
***Looking awesome by the way.