Presentation to the ACDEVEG Conference, Melbourne, December 2018
Thank you for inviting me here today and making me so welcome. Since I’ve been in Melbourne, I’m learning from you that our experiences in what I’ll call the Further Education – or FE – sector in the UK, specifically England, have a lot in common with your own and so I hope that what I’ve got to say here is relevant to you.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of it all, I’d like to say a bit about my approach to life and work. There’s nothing that can’t be improved by thinking about it first and so I don’t shy away from drawing on the ideas of other thinkers in everything I do. That’s a theory warning! My work now is nomadic; I’m affiliated to several universities and also do a lot of professional development with the FE workforce. I range across public service as a whole, doing community work in both housing and health and with women offenders. Coming here this week is about practising doing good work while out on the road. I think of myself as a recovering public servant.
For decades, FE has been referred to as the ‘Cinderella Sector’ in British education – the poor relation. Do you have that here? That metaphor totally plays into a blame and shame, perfectionist culture amongst educators, a sense of powerlessness and lack of agency. It has cemented itself as a Cinderella in the head.
Historically, English FE and the TAFE/VET landscape here in Australia have much in common. I worked in college-based community education for nearly twenty years, during which time we shifted from writing our own quals to a situation which has become hugely centrally regulated and scrutinised – you’ve heard of our Ofsted, right? Well I’m no wilting flower, but by the time I left my FE job to go freelance a couple of years ago I’d reached the stage where I had a panic attack if I drove past a school that exhibited a massive ‘Ofsted say we’re outstanding!’ banner outside. So many of them do that you wouldn’t send your kids to one that didn’t and that’s not a good thing, because the human cost of that banner is high.
I think Ofsted might be the significant difference between us, not because of the level of scrutiny per se – I’m sure you have plenty – but because of the language used. In England, you have to carry a personal label of ‘outstanding’ to be deemed any good as an educator – a label that can be taken away from you after a twenty minute teaching observation at any time.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. If you know your Brené Brown at all – and if you don’t, check out her TED talk – you’ll know that her research links perfectionism with breeding the blame and shame cultures I mentioned earlier. And she links shame with how entire workforces are controlled. This is perfectionism imposed from the outside, of course, but it soon gets lodged in the head. As teacher educators you will recognise how endemic ‘impostor syndrome’ is, particularly amongst TAFE/VET educators, who might not have followed the ‘golden route’ of education. The literal truth is that Ofsted are beginning to recognise this and have shifted their position, but many of those responsible for compliance in organisations have not – I call out human resources here, not just managers – all of David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’. I also call out ‘the pack’, compliant colleagues who – in times of fear and scarcity – take up a groupthink, ‘can’t do’ approach. Less of it here than in the UK I suspect, where rising levels of mental ill health and staff churn contribute to a bleak picture for the workforce. No wonder some colleagues dig their heels in.
So we find ourselves in the UK in a landscape of paradoxes. Short of funding, yet huge amounts of public money wasted on initiative after initiative. Zero-hours contracts for educators, yet I don’t believe there’s a principal who isn’t on a six-figure salary. Told to use ‘evidence based practice’ – but that the evidence of our own practice is worthless. Sold a story of transformational potential, yet corralled into place by risk-averse policies.
The problems are ideological – almost all our civil servants are privately educated, FE is for ‘other people’s kids’ – the problems are strategic and they are organisational. What concerns me is the impact of all of this on the workforce. The government minister for skills, herself a former nurse, asked recently how she could speak up for FE when FE didn’t speak up for itself and she’s got a point. We are depressed, disorganised and – frankly – obdurate. I’m sorry if that seems harsh. All of us here today will work with amazing educators. We’ve still got hope, right, or we wouldn’t bother? But others of our colleagues have folded their arms and are serving their time.
I totally get that. I don’t blame them. And I fully accept that structural change has got to happen, for anything to significantly improve – by which I mean fundamental, societal change, as well as policy changes in education. Whenever I talk about my work, I’m assailed by structuralists who seem to think I’m dumping responsibility onto the shoulders of individual educators so I’m just heading that off at the start. I’m not. I understand why people have got where they are. I’ve tried every other route open to me and it strikes me that nothing is going to change unless we educators make it change. Enter the Dancing Princesses.
In 2009 I made myself a Twitter account. Like everyone else, it took me an age to get going, but by 2014 I’d started to build networks with other educators outside my organisation. This brought a great opportunity to me – to collaborate in this book: Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses led by the Pied Piper Joel Petrie.
This was a book for educators who hadn’t got cynical; an attempt to replace the Cinderella metaphor with a powerful, collective, Dancing Princesses one. You know about the Dancing Princesses? Instead of waiting patiently to be married off, they sneaked out at night and danced until their shoes were in rags. The book is a mixed bag of essays by people who had – in the main – never met, written by FE practitioners and FE refugees now teaching in uni or doing other work. I’ve brought a few copies in for you to look through and you can see how engaging and fresh the tone is. It might be an ‘easy read’, but it’s also as complex and grounded as any other academic work.
My own chapter, written as a dialogue with my long-time work colleague Jane Weatherby, looked at how we created what we called ‘spaces to dance’ within formal learning programmes, by building communities on- and offline. The keynote of the whole book was affirmative critical thinking – if you have chance to read it I recommend Julie Hughes on the vulnerability of pioneering educators (particularly digital pioneers) and Rania Hafez on the limits of subversion. There was a huge buzz around being involved with something so refreshing. Naturally, the co-authors found one another on social media, sought one another out at events, began finding ways of working together which – crucially – permeated the boundaries of institutions.
These dialogues were invigorating because we looked beyond the ‘Cinderella of the mind’ and the structures – often managerial – which keep it in place. Over a series of (soon to be) three volumes, we rejected ideas of a ‘golden age’ for FE – there might have been one, but how is it relevant in this world, now? We challenged the way in which English FE ‘othered’ students into tragic life stories, more significant because of where they came from, than because of what they achieved. We began to re-imagine what further education might look like, if its actors were powerful.
We spun off into different constellations. There was no masterplan, just a joyous commitment to staying connected and an openness to what came next. Many of us still have not met for real.
Initially, we hung together around a hashtag #dancingprincesses. I cannot overstate the essential importance of Twitter to our movement. If you are not on Twitter, have a think about it. You don’t have to go anywhere near Lady Gaga or the Kardashians. If it connects Dancing Princesses who can’t escape their workload on our tiny island, it can surely do the same for this vast and beautiful continent. Via that hashtag, we began to transmute from co-authors of a book to self-identified Dancing Princesses – part of something bigger. As Julie Hughes writes, compliant organisations focused on the bean-counting side of survival are hostile environments for people trying work in new ways. Silenced and sometimes afraid, we found solace in our new sense of belonging. And because we didn’t formalise #dancingprincesses into any sort of structure, unlike Brexit we kept our borders open and invited diversity in.
What came out of the Dancing Princesses movement in a practical sense was a campaigning network Tutor Voices, a conference series ReImagine FE, two more books and lots more journalism, productive alliances and, perhaps most powerful of all, a resurgence in research from – rather than about – further education. We began telling our own stories, raising our own voices. We were able regenerate professional hope.
We’ve no committee structure, no standing conference, no bank account, no logo, but we’ve got an identity and – so much more than that – a powerful metaphor which enables others to self-identify as an educator who retains hope. Many of us – by no means all – are or were teacher educators, so our reach is immense. I got into teacher ed from community education as a deliberate sustainability strategy back in the day – sustainability for the work, not for me – and the amplifying nature of teacher ed means that there are hundreds of dancing princesses out there now in FE, patiently teaching affirmative pedagogies and changing organisational cultures – carving out spaces to dance. That metaphor alone is the gift that keeps on giving. When we get bruised or tired, we find each other on Twitter and play one another something like this:
I’m not joking. I did it this morning, when I was feeling a long way from home 🙂 It reminded me I was part of something.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses begins with a mystery: how do they manage to ruin so many pairs of shoes, night after night? Like the Princesses, we keep sneaking out to dance. As well as the cost in shoes, we are beginning to notice that we are breaking up the ground.
Since we started this work, back in 2014, little has changed structurally in FE apart from not-entirely-successful forays into merged uber-Colleges and various experiments with technical education. Yet the middle ground is breaking up, due to all the dancing. We are witnessing powerful activity at educator level which might not be turning the tide quite yet, but which is holding it for certain. What we’ve done, I think, is changed the nature of protest.
Once again, I’m not discounting those who engage in more traditional forms of dissent. University colleagues across the UK went on strike earlier this year and they were dancing too, employing novel forms of activism including performance, social media and unofficial ‘teach-outs’. They were largely supported by students and ultimately not unsuccessful: here’s the Cambridge University flashmob:
Not quite Christopher Walken! But witty, engaging, impactful: a #dancingprincesses approach, perhaps, to a conventional means of protest. FE, with its low pay, increasing casualisation and confusion of trade union representation, needs to dance a different path right now – change from within.
Emboldened by ideas and alliances generated outside the institution, educators are changing cultures. A key entry in the Dancing Princesses playbook is Richard Wilson’s work on anti-heroic leadership – leadership for complex times.
Convincing educators of their own powerful agency to grow the number of anti-heroes is revolutionary work. It plays out not in confrontation but in innovation, in a newness that cuts across the stale and sticking-plastered thinking of FE. Educators are ditching the dusty old teacher ed canon – I don’t know what it’s like here, but (with honourable exceptions) it’s terrible there – decolonising their reading, switching themselves back on to professional, pedagogical practice via TED talks and podcasts, developing a new democratic professionalism which is digitally fresh and takes its inspiration from dialogue with others. We are using what’s there – turning the structures which contain us to our advantage, what Sara Ahmed calls ‘complaint as diversity work’.
The shift is palpable. What started with books and a conference now reaches into professional development programmes and practitioner research, into online and face-to-face dialogues which actively practise respectful disagreement. We might be fecklessly out dancing all night, but it sort of seems like we are growing up too.
There’s still a long way to go. The UK is in a mess, you don’t need me to tell you that, and it’s a crossroads for the public sector, facing ideological annihilation on the one hand, but also not totally fit for purpose on the other. The challenge now for the Dancing Princesses is to send out roots into policy, taking a Richard Wilson brand of anti-heroic, anti-dependency, ‘good help’ into decision-making at the highest level. We are building some strong alliances, who are putting the infrastructure into place – kudos to the government-funded Education and Training Foundation, whose professional development and professional research programmes are opening dancehalls across the country. We got to know them on Twitter.
I’d like to end by summarising the things we did that got us to here: how to be a dancing princess, if you like.
- Networks. These are essential. There has to be an online space, otherwise you’d just see the same old people all of the time – and I don’t mean email! The purposeful use of freely available social media has been crucial, collecting around hashtags such as #femedtech, #feresearchmeets and, of course #dancingprincesses.
- Constellations. Here, the work is the organisation, rather than the organisation being the work, as it so often is in times of economic and ideological survival. Constellations are time-limited, task-oriented ‘projects’ that don’t necessarily need funding, or ‘permission from your line-manager’.
- Dancehalls. Where are those spaces to dance? And, to return to where I came in with this, dancing isn’t just about doing, it’s about thinking too, about choreographing newness. In pressurised, casualised working environments, we don’t even have staff rooms any more. So where can people get together and talk about their work? Virtual is essential, but real-time meets, facilitated so that people think together, is what really reimagines.
I don’t know about TAFE/VET, but FE has been anti-intellectual for the longest time. This is unhelpful. ‘Theory’ doesn’t have to be remote and being detached from those who have gone before – and who are thinking now – isolates us and keeps us down. Seek out thinkers who inspire and provoke – Rich Wilson, Sara Ahmed, Leigh Patel, many of the Dancing Princesses. This is not about ivory towers, it’s about developing a playbook, an imaginary of ideas.
- Pedagogies. Ultimately yes, it’s all about the students but the days of being told our mastery doesn’t count have got to be over. Our work is as much about enabling students to “feel hopeful, identify their own purpose, build confidence and take action” as it is to teach them about stuff, particularly I’d argue in the VET sector. Thinkers such as Michael Newman and bell hooks are Dancing Princesses too.
- Leadership. Anti-heroic leadership for complex times walks a personal ethics, as Azumah Dennis writes in The Principal. Forget the mission statements, figure out your own steps and don’t be told by others how to dance.
To transform further education, Dancing Princesses need to transform organisations by creating spaces for themselves and others to choreograph new steps. And if we fail? Plan B is already under discussion by some. A future where the dance leads us away from the fairytale castle and out into the fields. For those involved in rhizomatic initiatives such as the Ragged University, SenseLab, Co-operative Uni and COOCs, that moment has already come. Watch this space.