The proposed guild cannot claim to speak for the sector unless its board represents everyone in FE — and that includes learners, says Jayne Stigger

Learners put up with a lot from us; the chocolate bar and packet of crisps they signed up for is now a tuna wrap with avocado salsa on the side. FE is leaner and healthier. Why? Since 2009 colleges have listened to and involved learners in their decision-making.

The view of our customers has strengthened us, improved our culture, and supported quality assurance via reciprocal learning to put us in a stronger position to become ‘outstanding’.

They are our raison d’etre. Developing learners who are empowered through participation in their environment to take on challenges and lead roles in every aspect of FE life — from parking, menus, environmental issues, campus redesigns, travel subsidies, staff appointments, community campaigns — gives them an enriched, more rounded learning experience and provides us with a clear line of communication to our customers and their needs.

Every good college I have worked in has learners on its governing body, with the learner voice firmly embedded into its culture.

The new FE Guild has said that students will not  be invited on to the main board but will be in one of the steering groups to be consulted ‘when necessary’. How often will they be consulted? In draft three of the proposals it says: “Learner Voice is not really consistent with the draft purpose and function of an FE Guild as discussed . . . at the first steering group meeting”.  Learners will be lucky to whisper once a year.

If we must have a guild, it must be inclusive; it cannot represent FE unless it represents the whole of FE”

The Association of Colleges argues that there are better ways of engaging learners; I disagree. This is not about methods of collection but the value placed upon the view. The board is the heart and head of an organisation, the top table at a wedding.

Students must not be relegated to the status of a guest who receives an occasional wave and a bowl of cold soup at the back of the room.

Learner views cannot be ‘cherry-picked’ when a positive comment is required. Without constant, honest critique by our customers, we are in danger of drifting into being controlled by a ‘Prozac’ guild whose leaders believe their own narrative that everything is going well, discouraging followers from raising problems or admitting mistakes.

We have no desire to return to that era.

As with any other new governor, they will need support to take up the role. I’ve trained learners to understand the workings of a board (roles, responsibilities, budgets, forecasting, and confidentiality) so that they can be effective members, bringing a fresh and non-politicised view of the college.

They thrive on it. I have never seen a conference, survey or feedback on learners’ views that hasn’t improved an aspect of a college in some way; from small, simple daily workings to innovative and inspirational ways of doing things.

The board of the proposed guild should have four student members; one from each grade of college, geographically and socially diverse to reflect the true state of FE. Ask a learner and you’ll get a relevant answer.

If we must have a guild, it must be inclusive; it cannot represent FE unless it represents the whole of FE.  The learner is the heart of FE and always will be, no matter the government policy, political direction, funding stream, focus or method of delivery of the day.

We value our learners; their voice, their input. If the guild cannot, it is not and never will be, ‘our’ guild.

Jayne Stigger is excellence and innovations manager at Basingstoke College of Technology