Staff voices get marginalised in hierarchical workforces

7 Feb 2022, 6:00

Lecturers for ‘lower ability’ groups are sometimes not treated with the same respect as A-level staff, writes Chantal Brown

We all know that FE is already considered the poor counterpart to HE, secondary and primary learning. But inside FE institutions themselves, does another hierarchy exist?

A hierarchy where teachers rate themselves as more or less superior to their colleagues based on the level and subject they teach? 

And is there a snobbery around teaching certain cohorts, such as “lower-ability” students? Is this snobbery perpetuated by how teachers value their own contributions?

My very skilled colleagues, including all-important support staff, are passionate about giving young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) a broad and stimulating learning experience.

In doing so, I and my team help the voices of young people with SEND to be heard.

Until recently, I thought that marginalisation in FE was all about the students and the challenges many of them face.

It seems ludicrous to think not all teachers are valuing equally the specialisms and expertise of their colleagues. They know first-hand how challenging the profession can be. 

But my experiences reveal a certain ignorance towards SEND as a specialism in FE. 

The term SEND covers a broad and in some ways endless spectrum of adaptation, diagnoses, support and perspectives that really is not transferable from one cohort of students to another. You can’t package up your approach to one set of students and deliver it again, like a level 3 lesson.

Don’t get me wrong. This commentary is by no means a bashing piece on any other teaching area or curriculum level.

It’s more an attempt to call for equal respect for SEND lecturers and practitioners within the already understated position of FE in England. 

We should give all FE specialisms equal respect

It is a conversation I have had with colleagues, asking them how they think the role of the SEND lecturer is perceived. Some have overheard comments that teaching SEND is not “proper” teaching, or that “it’s easier” due to delivering entry-level subjects. 

At this point I would like to raise that, yes, my colleagues and I are experienced in teaching entry-level subjects. At the same time, we also know how to teach level 1, 2 and GCSE. 

Teaching students with very individualised academic, behavioural or emotional needs can be both rewarding and challenging all at the same time. 

Often the young people and adults we teach have had poor experiences in education, been written off by professionals and the system, and have been deemed as having no chance of progression or even employment. 

But it is such a privilege to support learners to overcome barriers to learning, engage with their peers positively, achieve qualifications and develop social and emotional skills and independence. It makes teaching SEND one of the most rewarding specialisms in FE and in education in general. 

There are no exam board-focused schemes of work or lesson plans. Quite rightly, the curriculum is reviewed regularly and adapted frequently, with the learners at the forefront of those decisions. 

Being a teacher of SEND also means there are no single subject specialism on your timetable. You don’t get to focus on teaching maybe two levels in the subject area in which you are qualified or have the most vocational experience. 

Whether it be GCSE maths or supporting learners to access college facilities independently, teachers of SEND have to be flexible and highly professional in all they do. They are representative of the whole ethos of FE.

I share this brief depiction of what typifies some of the key functions of my role in FE, to dispel some of the mystery around SEND.

Many lecturers won’t have the time to find out what SEND teaching is about, and won’t realise how much is involved.

All of us in FE work hard. Really hard. 

The fact a single institution can offer so many modes of delivery, qualifications and opportunities is testament to the variety of professionalism and expertise in the workforce of an FE college. It is most definitely representative of my college. 

So let’s take the time to genuinely appreciate all lecturers – regardless of their specialisms.

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