The Secret Life of Colleges

This piece was written for the first ever #UKFEchat Guide book, published on 4 September 2014. The Guide can be downloaded for free in various formats from Unlike my other blogs, it has had the benefit of an editor and a sub-editor. You will be disappointed, therefore, if you are looking forward to reading my usual idiosyncratic Punctuation and Grammar.

Well, it’s that time of year again. Or, if you’ve not worked in further education before, it’s that time of year for the very first time. Anything can happen in the next 10 months and nothing will ever be quite the same again. Welcome to our world, where only the unexpected is expected. This is your induction to our college and your initiation into the mystery that is FE.

One of the hardest things about working in a college is being asked to describe to other people what exactly your college is. If you set yourself the challenge of the Elevator Pitch – saying everything you need to describe it during one short ride in a lift – you’ll see what I mean.

“So, what do you do at your college?”

“Well, we run nurseries. We do vocational tasters for pupils who aren’t doing very well at school, and we offer stretch and challenge sessions for other pupils who are. We run a sixth form, but we don’t just do A-levels. We teach adults who can’t speak English through to adults who want to train to be doctors. We teach everything, from accounting to animal care – the whole A to Zebra. We visit factories in the middle of the night to train and assess apprentices. We teach university courses, but not all of them degrees. We run facilities for the public, including hair salons, five-a-side football, restaurants, health spas… Sorry, did you miss your floor?”

Is it any wonder that so many people just don’t get colleges, particularly people who have never been to one. That is probably what lies behind the great hairdressers v historians debate. Every single civil servant or policy adviser I have spoken to has had a history A-level in their locker, but I have yet to meet one that had an NVQ 3 in hairdressing. You don’t have to have been to a college to understand their worth, but it does help.

The biggest mistake that people make is to think that a college is just another institution between a school and a university. Another mistake is to think that what happens in a college is all about the courses it teaches. Colleges aren’t about courses. This induction contains your initiation into the essential ­reality that is further education.

This is our secret: colleges are really wormholes in the very fabric of the universe, portals through time and space that enable people to get from where they are now to where they want to be then. Under the guise of studying for a qualification, learners grow and develop into the people they can be, they become self-confident, they mature (or grow younger at heart), they learn to aspire and then learn to reach the level of that aspiration. Once you understand this, you will be ready to take your place in our great metaphysical timetable of lifelong learning.

But what does this mean for you in practical terms as you start this new year at college? Well, there are three golden rules you should know.

First, when you meet your potential students for this year, don’t get bogged down in the “What course do you want to do?” question. Rather, get stuck into the “Where are you trying to get to?” question, and “How can we help you to get where you want to be?”. Ofsted used to obsess about the Golden Rule of Recruitment: get the right student on to the right course. You need to obsess about getting the right student to the right exit point for them. Where will the wormhole deposit them when they finish their studies?

Second, be aware of the excess baggage that your students will take with them into the wormhole. Wormholes are narrow and fragile and don’t take kindly to sharp-edged suitcases. In reality, you won’t be able to stop them bringing their luggage with them, but you need to know what that baggage is. The Golden Rule of Teaching is: know your students. Teaching isn’t a skill. It’s a relationship. Knowing your students is a key part to building that relationship. Many learners bring with them deeply indoctrinated beliefs of what they cannot do and what they are no good at. They often come with complicated lives and unreasonable demands placed upon them in the “real” world. Increasingly, they can be beset by mental health worries. Teaching your subject will be a very small part of what you do. ­Enabling learners to learn will consume your every thought.

Third, the ordinary laws of physics don’t apply in wormholes. That is why they are so effective. You must follow the Golden Rule of ­Inspection: what works is what is good. There is no right way to teach, and there are as many ways to learn as there are people. There are many tricks of the trade and endless good practice that you can pick up from colleagues, but what works well in one class will bomb in another, and what brings out the best in one learner will leave ­another stone cold.

Ofsted feigns surprise at colleges’ fixation with qualification success rates (its own enlightenment is a very recent and not yet wholly ­complete achievement). It has moved its focus to “progress” and destinations. What is certainly good is when learners emerge from the other end of the wormhole, enabled and empowered to see and take the opportunities that await them. If they are clutching a qualification certificate in their hand as they do so, so much the better.

Welcome to the college. The universe we span is an increasingly hostile one. Our finances are more and more constrained at the very time that the cost of vocational resources, and the demands for ever higher quality, are growing. You have received your terms and conditions of employment from our HR director. Your real challenge will be to not let this all-consuming job consume all of you.

So work hard to maintain your work-life balance. Develop outside interests. Tweet. You could become a lifelong learner yourself. Maybe take an evening class in astrophysics?

And don’t forget how lucky you are. Not everyone gets to work in a wormhole.


About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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1 Response to The Secret Life of Colleges

  1. Pingback: A Post About ESOL for Non-ESOL People | Sam Shepherd

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