Final version holistic research for holistic practice: making sense of qualitative research data

FE: a culture of reprofessionalisation?

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FE: a culture of reprofessionalisation?

Discussion of FE since incorporation has focused a great deal on the new managerialist agenda, the consequences of target-driven funding and inspection régime, and the creation of an audit culture in which bureaucracy has proliferated (e.g. Ainley and Bailey, 1996, Avis, 1996, Gleeson, 1996). This has been perceived to result in a process of de-professionalisation, through the increasing prescription and a surveillance of practice, a reification of students as abstract ‘units’, and a marketisation of the sector in which competition became far more important than collaboration. The notion of colleges as businesses has at times seemed to overwhelm their role as educational institutions.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that these developments have dominated professional practice entirely. Unsurprisingly, the culture of FE is far more complex than that. Recent research evidence demonstrates that many FE practitioners have found ways to reassert their own professional ethos in ways that resist or subvert the more negative effects of incorporation. Shain and Gleeson’s (1999) investigation of FE lecturers’ working practices and identities showed that many had responded to the new régime by adopting a form of ‘strategic compliance’. Through a process of professional reconstruction, such lecturers had found ways to engage in ‘creative accounting’ which ensured that numerical targets for funding were met, at the same time preserving and promoting certain core values.

These…include the commitment to student learning agendas with an emphasis on a particular model of quality that is defined though process rather than outcome, and a genuine commitment to widening participation that also recognises the need for collaborative modes of work…[T]hese values are not merely a reactive response to wider official policy agendas. Rather they have emerged via a complex process that involves the mediation of educational reform through existing professional ideologies and commitments (Shain and Gleeson, 1999: 460).
Examples of such a strategy evidenced by that study included moral and practical challenges to some of the sharper practices whereby colleges have sought to recruit students without proper consideration for the suitability of the course, reinforced by the integration of college guidance units into their own marketing departments. Lecturers had also run otherwise unfeasible community education courses by recording them under the aegis of Adult Basic Education, though they may in fact be a forum for parents of children excluded from school, rather than delivering literacy or numeracy. Early evidence from the TLC-FE project already suggests to us, in a similar vein, that some lecturers are allowing young people to remain on vocational courses although these students are clearly unable to meet the written coursework requirements. Despite threatening course ‘achievement’ targets, lecturers may allow some students to continue because they perceive the course to be the only stable factor in a disadvantaged young person’s life, or because the work experience placements provided through the college may prove vital for the student’s employment prospects in the future.

Such resistance to reductive policy approaches, and the strategic pursuit of practices which genuinely focus on young people in the context of their wider lives and experiences, is evident not only within teaching in FE, but also in the related field of support and guidance for young people in transition. Careers services were privatised in the mid-1990s, and their funding had become dependent on meeting targets for blanket interviewing and action planning of ‘mainstream’ youngsters (Ford, 1999). Many practitioners had perceived this as a process of deprofessionalisation for themselves and of further exclusion for those young people most in need of support. Some services and practitioners seized the opportunity offered by European funding through the Youthstart Initiative to create possibilities for continuing or expanding their work with disadvantaged young people. Here, holistic practice was seen explicitly as being at the heart of these responses:

Holism is integral to all high quality career guidance because career choice can never be wholly dissociated from the other factors (values, circumstances, responsibilities etc.) which make up each person’s life. However, resource and time constraints normally mean that in practice careers advisers have to discipline the adoption of holistic approaches [to those factors] which appear most directly related to career choice. For disengaged young people, the adoption of such disciplined approaches to guidance can mean that advisers are unable to touch the root causes of the individual’s inability to progress (Ford, 1999: 11).
We would argue that actions like these are indicative of a form of professionalism which resists the reduction of students to numbers and the over-simplification of their experiences in FE through abstract benchmarks of retention and achievement. We would also suggest that they represent a form of holistic practice.

There is evidence, then, that many practitioners in the learning and skills sector pursue values which focus on students’ needs, resist their generalisation as ‘customers’, and insist on a response to individual and collective needs that also take into account much wider contextual factors than can be accounted for by simplistic targets. These values could be summarised by the terms ‘holism’ or ‘holistic approach’, and appear to lie at the heart of relatively common practitioner reassertions of their professional identity. It is for this reason that we argue that research engaged with such a form of practice, seeking to integrate FE practitioners in the research process itself and to disseminate it more widely throughout the sector, may be more effective if it also adopts an holistic approach. Before going on to explore what such an approach might involve through our own experiences of research, let us first define more clearly what we mean by ‘holism’.

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