An Ode to Further Education: the good, the bad, and the utterly impossible

21st century life makes it very easy for us to make bubbles around ourselves without even realising it. Facebook shows us posts we are already likely to agree with. We make time to talk to the people whose views make us happy, and the others fall by the wayside – something that is all to easy without ever noticing in the crazy busyness of life.

Bursting that bubble means leaving that comfort zone a little bit. Doesn’t have to be far. Church is one way of doing that, as you worship together next to people of different ages, languages, life experiences. Further Education is another way. You walk into a classroom intending to improve your maths, and you find yourself sitting next to someone with a swastika tattooed on his arm. Or someone who voted Remain when you voted Leave. Or someone passionate about averting climate disaster when you think the whole thing is depressingly talked about too much already, and really, what does it have to do with you?

Being a Further Education teacher hasn’t just burst the bubble I live in. It’s sent it spiralling into the nether regions of outer space. It’s changed a lot of other things about me too, of course – I used to have less grey hair, a recognisable waistline, and the ability to stay awake past 9pm, for starters. But balancing out all those things is the moment you get it right, find the right question, and everyone in the room learns something they used to disagree with.

The class you end up in within adult education is not based on age, and is not always based on previous education level. If I’m honest, quite often occasionally it’s impossible to find any logic in it at all, however hard we all try. Fully qualified and experienced nurses from other countries can be in the same classroom as people who could never progress at school because dyslexia was not a recognised thing 50 years ago, and they were just called stupid and put in a corner. They are joined by those sent by the job centre to demonstrate they are improving their employability skills, who sit next to those whose English needs improvement and who can’t afford the time and money needed for an ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) course.

An adult education classroom, for those who have never entered one, is a place frankly unlike anything else in this world. It is populated with a cast that soap operas would reject as being too extreme to be believable. As a teacher of Functional English and Maths, I think we see both the absolute best and the diabolically appalling depths of humanity, often on the same day. In my classroom, I have had refugees from Sudan and asylum seekers from Syria. I have had drug dealers and people who will do anything to cheat the benefits system. I have had women who have picked up their children, whilst still teenagers themselves, and moved to a whole new country to avoid domestic abuse. I have had men who were knocked down by cars or circumstances as children, and became unable to recognise words like “and” or “me”. I have seen hundreds of adults walk through the door with a driving ambition to be midwives and paramedics, human rights lawyers and politicians, to learn to read their children bedtime stories or fill in a form at the doctor’s without asking for help, to make their children, their spouses, their parents, finally, proud of them.

There are as many starting points as there are different ways of spelling the sounds we use in English. (If that’s too technical, make a guess of how many it is. Double it. Add another ten. Then double that if you want to include the ones that logically we should use, but we don’t.)* They all want different things at the end, too. The thing is, they have all chosen to walk back into education for their own reasons, and to them, it doesn’t matter whether they are sitting their GCSEs or this is the first time they have ever taken an exam, and they are facing Entry 1. To them, they are all significant, and terrifying, and something to put all over Facebook and boast about at the pub if they go well. As a teacher, I have been guilty of being blasĂ© about exams, and it sometimes takes me aback how much my students have not.

The media is full of stories about the tests that are faced by children throughout their schooling. It speaks less about the tests facing those in lifelong learning – but then that’s not really surprising, as it speaks less about lifelong learning in any context. But the thing about our education system, as anyone who works in it knows, is that it is all about results – because getting results is the only way to get funding. And so, my adults have to take exams. Now, exams every now and then are perfectly reasonable. Having a fairly consistent set of exams at the end of your journey through school, for example, is actually quite useful for the Rest of Your Life. Particularly if you are lucky enough to have passed those exams. But for adults, that is not what we are talking about. They have an exam at the end of every single year. If they pass (and thankfully, many of them do pass), they get to go up to the next level, and the next set of exams. If they don’t pass, they get to take another exam. And another. And another. Until either they pass or their teacher manages to convince management that they should be allowed a break, and they retreat, bruised and battered and licking their wounds, until the next year starts and the cycle begins again.

I have become an expert on stress. The stress of finding out that their dreams of university are several years away yet. The stress of taking exams – familiar to so many at this time of year, punctuated for my students with questions like “what if my children’s school rings while I’m in the exam?” The stress of failing, and the stress of passing and being scared about moving up to the next level. I see the stress of teachers, forced to force students through exams we all know they should not be taking. I see managers stressed by trying to balance the impossible, meet all the needs of the community and the college with ever shrinking budgets and constantly diminishing freedom. I see colleagues at the start and the end of their careers, drowning alike by the desire, and the absolute impossibility, of fixing everyone who walks through our doors.

FE doesn’t get talked about much. I’d never been into an FE college before I started teaching in one. But if we are serious about making this country a better one to live in, work in, learn in and progress in, we cannot ignore this sector. Adults learn here to hold their heads high and know how to help their children with their homework. They talk to people of different ages, from different cultures, with utterly opposing views on work, Brexit, sexuality, food, capital punishment – you name it, it is found somewhere in an adult education classroom. Sometimes they learn something. Sometimes they don’t. But they are always changed by the experience.

*OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It’s about 150 different combinations, to make the 42 sounds we regularly use. Out of 26 letters. It really is unfair when you look at it like that.


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