The Excluded Voices of FE Teachers and Communities: The Principal – Power and Politics in Further Education by Rob Peutrell

Rob Peutrell contributed a chapter to the book ‘The Principal – Power and Professionalism in Further Education’, a collection edited by by Maire Daley,‎ Prof Kevin Orr,‎ and Joel Petrie.  The book brings people from various backgrounds and view points in contributions which interrogate power and how is it expressed in the Further Education sector today.


Rob Peutrell
Rob Peutrell

As a sequel to an earlier book – ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses’ – this book whilst being playful addresses profound issues in the education sector.


Using Machiavelli’s in/famous writing, ‘The Prince’ as a spark point, the writers of each chapter share their various perspectives to scrutinise what leadership is playing out as, what agency is left to people and what professionalism means in Further Education today in the UK.



The audio recording was taken at the presentation which Rob gave at the book launch and conference held in Huddersfield University on November 25th 2017.  Many thanks to Rob for sharing his thoughts and work with a wider audience.  What follows is an article which Rob wrote to accompany the audio file.


The Excluded Voices of FE Teachers and Communities

“The democratic deficit is widely recognised in our sector – at least, that is, by FE teachers, whose working lives are affected – often drastically – by institutional and national policy but whose voices, along with those of communities, are routinely forgotten by sector ‘leaders’.  This deficit contravenes basic democratic principles, with implications for decision-making, the wider social role of the sector, and for the everyday experience of teachers and students.  My contribution is a local perspective on the forgotten voices of FE teachers, in which I ask why it matters and what we can do about it.”


My contribution to The Principal discussed democracy, or rather its lack. in further education (FE). Drawing on my local experience of FE in Nottingham, I made an analogy between Machiavelli’s exile in San’ Andrea and the exclusion of teacher and community voices from sector decision-making. In writing the chapter, I had the opportunity to revisit and record some of the key events that have shaped FE in the city. I made three key points:


  1. There is deep democratic deficit in our sector; teachers and communities are largely excluded from policy making locally and nationally.
  2. As practitioners, we experience this deficit acutely in our everyday professional lives;
  3. We have the resources to mobilize for a different, more democratic FE.


By rights, we should not need to make a claim for democracy in our sector, but in the everyday world of FE, we desperately do, consistently and repeatedly. That said, for the first time in a long time, I think that there is a genuine opportunity for the case for a more democratic system of FE to be heard. FE is on the post-Brexit agenda (albeit filtered through the narrow lens of workplace skills).


The proposal for a National Education Service and the Labour Party’s commitments to funding and lifelong learning could be game-changers. Following Ian Dury, there maybe reasons to be (cautiously) cheerful. Much depends on the outcome of the next general election, but also on how far FE practitioners and researchers can shape the emerging policy agenda.


Despite examples of great practice in the sector, the enthusiasm of participants in the various (virtual and ‘real’) practitioner and research networks, and the genuinely inspiring examples of transformative learning collated by the Transforming Lives project, the experience of working in FE is increasingly characterised by low morale, frustration and stress [1].


Across the sector, there is a feeling of estrangement from the the corporate values, priorities, practices and language of the institutions we work in. This feeling drains the motivation and resilience of individual teachers, and undermines the social capital and shared purpose that are essential if colleges are to (if not exactly thrive in a time of austerity) at least survive it with their integrity intact.


The feeling of disconnection, moreover, not only affects teachers. It is often noted that the identification communities once had with their local colleges has also been lost. Some see this as simply a failure of branding [2] – the solution is to invest in more ‘positive messaging’. The diagnosis is perfunctory, the prescription, predictable; the marketing mindset and the culture it encourages have contributed much to the problem that more advertising is intended to resolve.


There Is No Alternative

To understand the logic and language of corporate culture in the sector, I’d like to refer to an article by Thomas Diefenbach [3] which explored the ideology of managerialist change in the context of a case study of one university. What was striking about Diefenbach’s account of ‘organizational change management’ was how well it seemed to fit our local experience. Diefenbach highlighted the various claims and practices that typified change management:


There is No Alternative – institutional survival demands change

  • There is only One Possible Course of Action
  • There is an External Enemy and an Enemy Within – teachers who ‘drag their feet’ and indulge in negativity
  • Change needs Clear Leadership and Fierce Leaders
  • Resistance is Futile and – given the external risks to the institution – possibly dangerous; that there is resistance merely demonstrates the urgency of change
  • Those Opposing Change need ‘Guidance’ on how to think and fit with the new agenda
  • People are put into a permanent State of Anxiety
  • People have to Adapt or Go
  • There is No Gain without Pain – in fact, pain is the evidence that progress is being made


But interestingly, the author went onto note that:

  • The empirical evidence supporting managerialist change is very poor indeed.
  • Whilst some might believe in the language they use, managerialist change is also about power, control, and individual and group positioning, including the reputations of individuals inside and outside the organisation. Motives are often cynical.

I shared the article with a number of current and former colleagues, and as one recently retired teacher put it: the case study could easily have been ‘FE since 1993’.


Why Democracy?

Essentially, the argument for democracy is a pitch against this ‘top-down’ managerialist ideology – a demand by the people for a share in the exercise of power. Whilst the meaning of democracy is notoriously contentious, it is worth reminding ourselves of some key principles [4]:

  1. We should ‘share in the power by which we are governed’,
  2. Power should be exercised ‘on behalf of the many rather than the few’,
  3. We should all be ‘regarded as ends rather than means’,
  4. Everyone should ‘have a political voice’.


The need to get back to these basic tenets of sharing power, inclusion, moral recognition and voice are clearly evident in the FE sector, and I would argue that teacher and community participation is essential for at least four key reasons:

  • Democratic principle: those affected by sector policy have a right to shape that policy, nationally, locally and within our institutions.
  • Enabling participation: so that our sector can benefit fully from the professional knowledge and experience of teachers, and from the ‘hidden potentials’ [5] for identifying issues and solving problems of all those involved in our colleges, including students and communities.
  • Accountability: democratic openness is a condition of accountability in a sector scarred by policy churn, new starts, restarts, false starts, vanity projects, and in some cases outright corruption.
  • Sector responsibility for nurturing democratic citizenship: colleges should embody democratic values and nurture a democratic way of life in their culture and practices.


There are many examples of how things can go wrong when there is no genuine democratic involvement. We will all have our stories to tell, but in my chapter, I refer to two examples from Nottingham.


First, I recalled a very Machiavellian text (in the dark sense of Machiavellian, that is). Re-engineering the culture of a college [6] was written by Nick Lewis, the Principal of the then Broxtowe College and one of the architects of post-incorporation managerialism. His piece was published in a Coombe Lodge Report for the Staff College and (much like Staff College) is probably mostly forgotten. However, a facsimile is available online which I would recommend for the insight it gives into one of FE’s great ‘Machiavellian’ minds.


In the text, Lewis set out what he described as the ‘forces that tend to restrain cultural change’ in a college (p.245). These included long-serving staff, past successes, and the relationship between the FE unions and the LEA, which he claimed ‘emasculated’ management. (Emasculation is always a worry for ‘masculine’ management. And note the ‘masculine’ metaphor – engineering rather than nurturing or cultivating a culture, with its connotations of calibration and fabrication over the messy, organic and contingent.)


But Lewis’s most telling remark was that ‘the strong priority commitment given by lecturers to students, teaching and curriculum matters’ (p.259) was a force restricting cultural change. This comment is extraordinary, especially in regard to a college that, by the writer’s own account, was ‘well respected for the quality of teaching’ (p.255).


It was a sign of the erosion of FE teacher professionalism that was to come, and of the elision of teaching and teachers Frank Coffield [7] described in ‘Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority’. After incorporation, Broxtowe was known for its individualized pay schemes and as one of the worst-paying colleges in the East Midlands, a fact not unconnected from the devaluing of teacher professionalism, I would argue.


Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority by Frank Coffield
Click To Download: ‘Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority’ by Frank Coffield


The second, more recent example involved New College Nottingham (NCN). NCN was the setting for an experiment in so-called ‘entrepreneurial learning’ imposed by its then Principal, Amarjit Bassi, a founder member of the Gazelle Group of Colleges. The idea of ‘entrepreneurial learning’ was rooted in Gazelle’s superficial vision of a hyper-networked, go-getting global economy which demanded learning of a radically new entrepreneurial kind. Gazelle was well-known for its membership fees, which, observers noted, seemed to deliver little in the way of educational benefit [8].


Bassi was equally well-known as the highest paid FE principal of 2017. This was the result of a generous salary and a settlement reported to be over £200,000, [9] agreed after Cornwall College went into financial crisis in 2016 [10] – exactly what had happened on his watch at New College Nottingham two years earlier.


When Bassi began his entrepreneurial revolution at NCN, teachers were alarmed that the college’s new mission of ‘Excellence, Employability and Enterprise’ made no mention of ‘Education’.  They were equally concerned when the college set up and funded six or so commercial learning companies, including taking over a failing car dealership and a café with little passing trade. Importantly, when staff at the college tried to raise concerns with both the college corporation and local politicians, their worries were ignored.


A subsequent investigation by the FE Commissioner in 2015 [11] concluded that the college’s financial deficit was ‘largely unnecessary’ (p.3) and the result of inadequate financial control and the Principal’s ‘expansionist’ ambitions (p.5) (including investments in India).  The commissioner went on to criticize the college corporation for being ‘too willing to accept’ the Principal’s enthusiasm (p.6). No board members resigned as a result of his report.


These are not just historical issues. Debate over the future of FE in Nottingham continues, evident from a recent exchange in the Nottingham Evening Post – an article that promised ‘tough love’ for the students and an employer-led curriculum, a riposte by a Nottingham-based professor of adult education [12].


So Where Does This Leave Us?

I didn’t want to end my contribution to the book with a vague paean to democracy. I wanted to think about the many resources we already have to develop a vision of our own and mobilise around it.  Although we always need to keep our thinking open, much work has already been done on what a democratic education system might look like.


For example, the Campaign for State Education (CASE) has proposed a democratic model for local education systems in which teachers, community representatives and other stakeholders work collaboratively with elected council representatives on local education strategic planning boards and forums [13]. The NUT’s Reclaiming Schools campaign made strong, practical arguments for teacher professional empowerment [14]. The UCU’s model of teacher professionalism in FE draws strongly on the notion that teachers should be activist (not passively compliant) professionals [15].


In addition, there is something of a buzz of critical and constructively democratic dissent around the edges of our sector. Newer and older ideas of teacher professional identity (e.g. transformative and social purpose education, community, dialogue, critical pedagogy) are emerging or being revived in informal e-networks and conferences, and even in some classrooms.


The challenge is to link this buzz more firmly into the wider feeling of sectoral discontent. Discontent does not automatically produce dissent; resistance in the sector is piecemeal and episodic; the more common feeling is that nothing much can be done in institutions not set up to listen. Moreover, without this connection, dissenting cultures can become self-referential and academic.


Unless we do find ways of shaping the FE agenda through our own democratic professional agency, others – politicians, officials and so-called ‘sector leaders’ – will do the shaping for us. We can express our agency in different ways, crucially through our collective organisations (notably, our trade unions; through other professional bodies too). But here, I want to share one example from the ESOL community of how democratic agency has been mobilised.


The ESOL Manifesto [16] emerged from a very visible, national campaign by teachers, students and other groups against proposed cuts to ESOL funding in 2011. We recognized that resisting the threats to ESOL was not enough. Rather, we needed a clear statement of our own values and a confident vision for ESOL we could organise around. About a hundred individuals contributed to the Manifesto. As an example of grassroots democratic policy formation, it is unique in our sector in recent times.


Click to Download: 'ESOL Manifesto'
Click to Download: ‘ESOL Manifesto’


The ESOL Manifesto informed the current campaign by NATECLA (the professional body of ESOL teachers) for a national strategy for ESOL in England [17]. Its document was launched at a Parliamentary meeting in May 2017. When Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the AOC national conference, he referred explicitly to ESOL’s ‘dangerous state of disrepair’ [18]. This was the first mention of ESOL in a key note at the AOC conference that anyone could remember and testament to the hard political work within the ESOL community.


Is it possible that out of the wider melee of discontent and dissent, grassroots teachers and researchers can draw together a bigger manifesto – a confident statement that imagines a different, democratic FE sector as a whole? Such a statement would inevitably be provisional and draw on the concerns, experience and insight of those who get involved. Nonetheless, it is a challenge worth meeting.


Of course, as Machiavelli reminds us, democracy is no panacea; all constitutions are prone to corruption, the democratic included. Claiming our democratic rights as professional educators means accepting our democratic responsibilities, including ethical practice; a commitment to great teaching; and accountability to our students, communities and each other.


But without democratic principles at work in institutions that empower the voices of teachers and communities, we cannot hope to mobilize our professional best or the sector’s ‘hidden potentials’, or meet our communities’ real aspirations and needs in the way we should.


Rob Peutrell photo


3 Thomas Diefenbach (2007) The managerialistic ideology of organisational change management in Journal of Organizational Change Management 20 (1) pp. 126-144
4 Wendy Brown (2015) Undoing the Demos Zone Books New York p.202
5 Axle Honneth (2017) The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal Polity Cambridge p.62
6 Nick Lewis (1994) Re-engineering the Culture of a College in Richard Gorringe et al Changing The Culture of a College: Coombe Lodge Report available online
12 and