Principals, teachers and experts gathered to discuss improving the status of staff in colleges and training providers at a roundtable event in Westminster.

The impact of Lord Lingfield’s independent review on professionalism in further education was at the core of the panel’s debate, which included chief executives from the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) and the Institute for Learning (IfL).

At the Westminster Briefing event David Sherlock, a key contributor in the Lingfield review, stressed the importance of creating an environment in which the professionalism of staff was sustained and enhanced naturally without being “prodded, prompted or permitted” by government.

“The principal message we got from talking to people around the country was please, leave us alone to get on with teaching and serving communities and employers,” he said.

The panel welcomed the report’s suggestion that government should step back.

One of the ways to give the sector more autonomy is through a guild. Originally the idea of former Skills Minister John Hayes, the report strongly supported the plan, and on the day of its publication in October the government announced the AoC and Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) had been given the green light to take proposals forward.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said the next step was for his organisation and AELP to draw up a consultation document with the proposals partners.

“The proposal was put together in around three weeks, and necessarily it is open-ended and poses a number of questions we need to resolve,” he said.

Mr Doel said details needed to be confirmed with partners and consistent with the Lingfield report, but saw the guild as concentrating on individual development as a “shared enterprise between employers and employees”.

“I don’t think the guild will directly have a role in relation to overall institutional performance,” he said. “This is clearly the aggregation of individuals work, but I don’t think the guild will be going into an institution saying your systems are wrong, your processes are wrong, your quality’s wrong.

“The temptation when you set up one of these bodies is to ask it to do everything, but it’s important to say what it won’t do.”

The proposal had three core areas: teaching and learning, leadership and management skills, and stimulating individual practice.

The government is effectively saying it isn’t going to interfere  anymore”

The guild was supported by the panel and Rob Wye, chief executive of the LSIS, particularly welcomed the ownership of standards he said the guild would give the sector.

“The government is effectively saying it isn’t going to interfere in this anymore. It’s supportive of you taking this task on, but you’re a grown-up sector, and in the same way that we trust higher education to take that agenda forwards on its own behalf, we’re looking to the further education sector to do the same,” he said.

Lord Lingfield was asked by Mr Hayes to carry out the review looking at how to “raise the status of further education professionals” in February. It followed a boycott of the IfL, an independent body that supports the professional development of teachers and trainers, by 40,000 of its University and College Union (UCU) members.

In 2007 the government had made it mandatory for teaching staff to be members of the IfL. Having initially paid membership fees, the government announced in 2009 this would stop, leading to last year’s boycott by UCU members.

Mr Sherlock said the first part of the review, which was published in April was to solve this “crisis”, and had succeeded in making IfL membership voluntary.

He added there was no reason why representative organisations, such as the AoC, AELP, and IfL could not “simply come together in the guild”.

Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the IfL, said: “What was painted was picture of a guild that can draw in the partners, gain the best possible value to support the sector in the best possible way, to be complimentary. In that sense, there’s a lot of optimism going forward.”

During the discussion Mr Sherlock said the central conclusion of the report was that further education was not very well defined.

“It needs to sharpen its definition rather than being, as it is at the moment, pretty much a dumping ground for all those jobs that other people do badly,” he said.

“The result is that instead of having a vocational training sector, which is primarily involved in powering the economy, it’s a remedial sector having to cope with around 360,000 kids who leave school each year having failed to attain a level of general education that the government feels is adequate for them to get a decent job.”

He added: “We’re suggesting the government needs to make it clear that the primary role of further education in England is occupational training in the service of the economy, and clearly it has a secondary role in terms of life-long learning.”

Mr Sherlock said these roles should be “miles away” from its remedial role.

The panel questioned the practicality of this, however. Mr Doel described it as “very optimistic” and said a college needed to be “what its community wants it to be”.

Ms Fazaeli said: “Aspiration is one thing, reality is another. It’s a good aspiration, but in Leicester where I live, for any of the colleges in that locality to say we shouldn’t be doing remedial work, what happens to all those thousands of adults and young people who do not have level two English and maths?”

She said it would probably take around 20 or 30 years to get to that stage and that colleges do not only cater for people who have been through the English education system, but also students who have recently arrived to England.

“The emphasis on vocational learning is very important, as is the emphasis on adult and community learning,” she said. “I don’t know why there needs to be an almost social class system where one is more important than the other.”

Calls for a guild, covenant and chartered body

From left: Lord Lingfield with FE Minister Matthew Hancock at the launch of the Lingfield Review

In October Lord Lingfield published his review on professionalism in FE. It suggested the government needed to take a step back and give the sector more responsibility. Among the ideas explored on how to raise standards was the development of a guild, with a covenant and a chartered body. Here are some snippets of what the report said:   

The guild

“The proposed FE guild gives an opportunity to underline the sector’s unity while still recognising its diversity.”

“We would wish to see guild membership as an assurance that both providers and their individual members of staff are committed to ethical behaviour and good citizenship. We hope that the guild will be able to enhance leadership and management across the sector, so that shortages of outstanding candidates to succeed to senior posts will become a thing of the past.”

The covenant

“Learning from a parallel with the Armed Forces Covenant…. this might be the vehicle for agreement on such matters as the obligation to undertake qualifications and continuing professional development (CPD) among lecturers, and corresponding obligations to give moral and tangible support among employers.”

“The FE covenant might also be the place for expression of a code of professional conduct and those many other matters of mutual interest across the sector which transcend anything that readily can be agreed between the individual employer and its staff.”

The chartered body

“We suggest that the long record of self-assessment of quality across the sector, a growing commitment to peer review, and developing practices in Ofsted which include freedom from inspection for high-performing providers, combine to make a proposal timely that quality assurance of chartered providers should shift towards independent verification of self-assessment, perhaps by the QAA which we believe may be best suited to the task, leaving Ofsted to focus on low achieving institutions.”