The Culture of the Now: barriers to research in fe

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LSRN 020704 Culture of the now 2

The Culture of the Now: barriers to research in FE
Tony Scaife, University of Leeds
Paper given to the fourth annual conference of the Yorkshire and Humberside Learning and Skills Research Network. Friday July 2nd. 2004, Hinsley Hall, Leeds.
I argue in this paper that in Further Education, there is a culture of the now1 with its origins in the manufactured uncertainty of the risk society (Beck 1999), which creates significant barriers to sustained, well grounded research in FE. That is not to say that there is no research in FE, and indeed, as we shall see some colleges are quickly responsive to the findings of accountants and consultants, but that generally there is little organisational ‘space’ or time available in FE for ongoing research.

The culture of the now has three inter-related aspects. Firstly there is an institutional dimension. All those in FE are harried by frenetic structural instability. There are endless national and local policy changes and an audit culture of incessant financial and curriculum inspections. Internal restructuring and personnel change appear to be a frequent response to these pressures. Cumulatively, these factors give little time or space for reflection or to the development of a measured response to change. Responses tend to be inchoate, short term and unsustainable and, thus, serve to manufacture further instability.

Secondly there are ideological barriers, stemming from a false perception of the management of risk, which make research an unattractive option for those planning the strategic direction of colleges. In essence the audit culture favours standardisation and easily replicable regimes where as success, within the risk society requires “…organisational cultures which enhance individual flexibility and responsiveness” (Brotherton, 1998). Thirdly then, despite the rhetoric, colleges, in fact, tend not to treat their employees as their most valuable asset. In so doing they frequently give the impression of ignoring or not valuing the creativity and professionalism of college staff. Of seeking to micromanage the activities of staff through one failed initiative after another, and in so doing helping to create the climate of manufactured uncertainty which is so corrosive to sustaining a culture of flexibility and responsiveness.
In arguing my case much of the evidence is drawn, from the data collected during the three year life of the Transforming Learning Cultures in FE2 (TLC) project. I am pleased to acknowledge the wealth of data that my colleagues on the project have provided but must accept full personal responsibility for the interpretation of that data within this paper. The existence of the TLC project itself and the evidence it has accumulated of diverse, dynamic, complex learning cultures sustained by tutors and students, shows that there is individual flexibility, responsiveness and creativity within the FE.

In addition the Learning and Skills Development Agency, and its very successful regional Learning and Skills Research Networks shows that the picture is not all dark. There is interest in and active support for FE research. Locally there are people working at the ‘sharp end’ of FE who have produced good research. For example, Sandra Rennie at Bradford (Rennie, 2002) and Helen Kenwright at York (Kenwright, 2001). To develop my argument further it is necessary first to explain the TLC project in some detail.

The TLC project is based upon a partnership between four English universities and four English FE colleges. From its inception the project was at pains to establish a partnership between the rich research culture of the universities and the partner colleges. It was to be “research in FE” not “research on FE” and one of its aims was to enhance research capacity in FE. Across all four colleges senior managers gave the project their support and signed formal contracts. They helped identify at least four participating tutors from their respective colleges and partially seconded a member of staff to act as a college based researcher for the project (see Scaife, Davies and Colley, 2001; and James (in press) a) for a discussion of the implementation of the project). Yet, after this promising start, during the three-year life of the project 75% of the college-based researchers have been made redundant from their college roles3. This statistic, in itself, is significant evidence, I would argue, of a problem FE has with research.
The Institutional Dimension
Just how prevalent then is this culture of the now: found in “the dynamic and volatile world” of FE (Huddlestone and Unwin, 1997). Since the project started the whole FE sector has moved from the funding mechanisms of the Further Education Funding Council to those of the Learning and Skills Council(s). Furthermore, all four of the partner colleges have undergone major restructuring (together with mergers or amalgamations in some cases). They have all undergone full general ALI/OFSTED inspection. Whilst these are both stressful and disruptive they tend not to contribute significantly to the development of the college (Rennie, 2002). Then there are the endless financial and curriculum audits which are now the norm in FE (Perry, 2000). In all of the partner colleges some learning sites4 have been disrupted by changes in location, the removal of some learning resources and changes in staff. This culture of the now is driven by financial and structural imperatives not pedagogical needs.
Indeed in respect of pedagogy there is a pattern of increased pressure to “do the stuff”, as one Holly Tree College tutor described their teaching with reduced resources. Whilst the research diary of another tutor regularly records increasing class sizes, extended contact hours, increasing management and administrative responsibility and increasing curriculum standardisation. Another tutor discusses the complexity they faced in delivering the curriculum within the context of overlapping uncertainties and declining resources (James, in press, b). For a tutor trying to develop a genuinely transformative learning experience for their groups the impact of regular external curriculum was serious hindrance (James, in press, c). A trip to IKEA has caused one member of the national TLC team to reflect that the innovation, creativity and enterprise which were once the hallmarks of FE teaching have been subsumed under “quasi commercial models of organisation”. Under this new dispensation students are “now clients or customers, to whom we deliver learning in packages…[ranging] from … bitesize courses to two year programmes. There are elaborate systems to measure customer satisfaction. Our Examination Boards issue ‘Product Updates’… Many teachers and managers… pore over spreadsheets of retention and achievement … trying to match their performance against national benchmarks” (James, in press, k). The TLC data reveals very little evidence of institutional systems designed to help individual teachers to “do the stuff”. Getting the teaching ‘right’ is a complex and challenging problem (James, in press, e) which rarely receives much scrutiny. On the other hand getting these figures right has become an obsession.
Most of the TLC partner colleges have faced financial difficulties resulting in the redundancy of staff. One reason well may be the complexity and problematic nature of the management information systems used to generate accurate funding claims. How important getting these benchmark figures right can be seen in the following case study from Holly Tree College.
The appropriate regional LSC published a report in February 2004 “highlighting failings in the college’s management information system … saying that the college had paid too little attention to a system that was essential in helping senior managers to understand the financial position…” In this particular case the problem was exacerbated by “the culture of the organisation – the fact that so few people shared information”. Restricting access to information is common within the factory system but the free flow of information within the organisation is a pre-requisite to an effective response risk and manufactured uncertainty (Brotherton, 1998).

Just how risky was the position of, and yet how manufactured was the uncertainty around, Holly Tree College prior to this financial indictment by the LSC can be judged by some of the range of issues governors and managers had been required to devote time to:

  • Undergoing a full general OFSTED/ALI inspection in March 2002.

  • Beginning to re-organise the college by publishing in September 2002 a consultation document Reorganisation of the College Structure which averred that “it is now both timely and important that the human resources requirements are reviewed and re-aligned in order to continue the college’s programme of improvements”. The document was based upon the findings of a firm of external consultants which was not published.

  • Receiving, in February 2003 the Secretary of State’s congratulations for “scoring top marks” in the OFSTED inspection which the Principal is reported to have accepted as a “fitting tribute to the staff ”.

  • Receiving, in February 2003, a report from Ben Johnson Hill Associates which referred to “low teacher productivity

which they said amounted to the employment of between 60 or 70 more teachers than were justified
in addition, ”further analysis showed that there should be scope to raise teacher productivity by up to 30% …”

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