Further EducationSeptember 16, 2011
I did some supply teaching in an FE college.
My timetable was split between A-level classes and classes of overseas students (mainly Chinese) doing a pre-degree course which was more advanced than A-level. (It was taught with A-level books from the early 1990s, something I’d like to see explained by those who claim dumbing-down is a myth.)
The overseas students were a bit of a shock. Most of them (particularly the Chinese ones), despite having to work in another language, already knew most of what they were being taught. They were just going through hoops in order to get into an English university.
The A-level classes were closer to what I was used to. However, they were a lot bigger than sixth form classes. My experience in school sixth forms was that you could up results by piling on the pressure: lots of homework, letters home, a constant refrain of “this is not like GCSE, you will have to study hard in your own time in order to pass”. The classes in the FE college were too big for this approach. You had to leave them to their own devices and too often this simply wasn’t sufficient. Too many were there for their EMA (this was before it was abolished) and an easy life. Too many had jobs in their spare time which meant that homework could not be set overnight. Too many had the low expectations that were normal in the local schools and no idea that college would need to be different.
The biggest difference was in how courses were managed. The scale of the college meant that nobody was paying close attention to whether kids were on the right course. A complex system of referrals was used to deal (slowly) with issues that would be dealt with informally at schools. This left kids, who were obviously destined to fail, stuck in classrooms where they wouldn’t learn. Students who failed very basic tests were given endless chances to resit. Departments were managed by lecturers who didn’t teach the subject in question. There was less micro-management than in a school – nobody ever wanted to see me teach – but there was also indifference as to whether the schemes of work made sense or whether the resources available were appropriate.
The department itself was friendlier, the culture more informal, and the level of conversation more intelligent, than school staffrooms. There was far more respect for the students than in schools. When it was announced that a student was absent due to being stuck in his (or possibly her) room with “gender issues” it was taken a lot more seriously than I can imagine would happen in a school staffroom. However, a lot of time was spent complaining about contracts. It was a given that the college would take advantage of lecturers. I discovered that the person I replaced had quit after a year there in a promoted post, in order to go somewhere he would earn less money. Others were talking about leaving, again because of pay and conditions. Eventually, I experienced it firsthand. My hours were totalled up at the end of the month and I discovered I was being paid far less than promised. My complaints were ignored, and I was passed from one person to another as the blame was passed round. Eventually I concluded that the problem was with the person who offered me the job lying to me, rather than the agency or an administrative oversight, and I quit. A colleague told me as I packed my bag:
“It will be the college that is the problem. They are always ripping people off. They almost went bankrupt last year and, for a while, we were wondering if we were going to be paid.”
I decided to avoid FE colleges in future.