18th Oct 2022: Here be Dragons; Mapping Utopian Spaces in FE by Joel Petrie

Join us for Ragged University Talks in association with Trentham Productions on Tuesday 18th October at Liverpool Arts Bar (22 Hope St, L1 9BY) between 7 and 10pm for a couple of talks, a bite to eat (we also invite you to contribute a dish of your own. Break bread with us…) and some excellent music from Nazeem. Cost: FREE!


Title of talk:

Here be dragons: Mapping utopian spaces in FE.


Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • Oppressive management practices
  • The birth of the ’12 Dancing Princesses’ project
  • Fairy tales, and what they tell us
  • Hope / utopia
  • Future goals (Trentham Productions)


A few paragraphs on your subject:

This is a transcript on what I said when I was a part of a panel at a BERA conference.  It will give the reader a sense of the issues going on in the Further Education sector and tells you how the book ‘Further Education and Twelve Dancing Princesses’ into being:


“My name is Joel Petrie, I’m very local, I work in city of Liverpool College which is multi-sited but one of the sites is literally 100 yards that way I’ve been there quite a long time in fact when I started it wasn’t called the city of Liverpool college, it was called Liverpool Community College and I think that change articulates one of the things which has been catastrophic about the Further Education sector.


The name changed about three years ago when we had a significant change of Senior Management. I think the change was well intentioned. It was supposed to be about engaging more successfully and entrepreneurial dynamics encouraging local businesses to think of the college as being something that’s critical to the success of a local economy.


It happened at the same time as the college joined the Gazelle Group [The Gazelle Group is an association of United Kingdom further education colleges which promote entrepreneurship] which some of you will be aware of is an organization that was very much about encouraging entrepreneurial stuff in colleges.


Anyway so with the whole College we was freehand whipped to go to a meeting, and it’s a big college, so there’s a lot of Staff. They didn’t have a big enough room in the actual College estate so they hired the Philharmonic hall which is not far from here and it was packed to the rafters with staff.


The philharmonic hall normally has music but every now and again they have films, they’re usually old films, and they have this screen that comes out the floor on some kind of mechanism. It’s a really enormous screen and if you ever get the opportunity to go, you must, because they also have a Wurlitzer organ which comes about the floor and this elderly bloke comes on and sits and plays Cheesy Blackpool type songs whilst doing this (makes hand movements) – och, he is happy as a pig in shit


So we all sat down, the lights went down, the lights went up on the stage, and the new management team came on. So we’re in the dock at this level I’m they’re in the light at that level, and that also tells you one of the things which has been catastrophic about what’s happened to FE in the past 20 years or so since incorporation.


So the PowerPoint came on. Now you’ve never seen anything like it; a PowerPoint that size is really quite overwhelming – Orwellian almost, actually – and the image that they chose to talk about the new vision for the college was an image of a gazelle being savaged by a cheetah – I kid you not.


So part of the presentation was about the fact that we were going to join Gazelle. I think that was the link and the phrase that was used in relation to this image was ‘as a college we need to be fleet of foot’ – I said well that fucking gazelle’s not been very fleet of foot – (people laughing).


So there’s a massive massive gazelle and cheetah and I’m sitting next to this old guy; Im not being rude but he was the old school, a very close to retirement trade unionist politics lecturer and he’s looking at this…


So anyway so I will not bore you with the whole of the vision, it was fairly lengthy, but the end of the vision was essentially we had to think about ourselves in a completely different way; we have to think about of our relationship to the community and to business in a different way, and the final line of the presentation was “colleagues, today is year zero” – wow


So the politics… – and I’m thinking that was vaguely familiar – so the guy sitting next to the politics lecture says “Jesus Christ, first we get the iconography of national socialism and then we get the rhetoric of Pol Pot”.


Am I being recorded ? Yeah, yeah, yeah well – I will give you kind of editorial veto on any story – Don’t publish any of it.  So it’s been a bit of a journey since then really. I’m not going to talk about the problems of the sector actually… everyone knows what the FE sector in particular or HE2 to slightly lesser extent I would argue.


Actually I think year zero is now roughly and I think it’s now because there’s nothing further that can happen to FE now, it’s at a rock bottom. It’s at a point of existential crisis in my view. In the budget this week there was 420 million pounds found for potholes and no pounds found for Further Education and I had a sense that that things get darkest before dawn and I really am actually quite optimistic about Further Education.


I think that things are shifting a bit I think the way we’re seeing people like David Hughes AOC (Association of Colleges ) saying some really very radical things. I didn’t realize I met him a couple of times; he’s quite nice. I didn’t realize he was a Trot on the QT because he said… I mean look if you look at some of the things he’s been saying, follow him on Twitter – astonishing that somebody from the AOC is saying those things


I’m basically saying enough is enough. I’m going to now just very briefly in a bit of massive personal hubris read you the last paragraph of the introduction to a book that I co-edited with Professor Kevin Orr and Maire Daley a few years ago called ‘Further Education and the 12 Dancing Princesses’


…and we call it that because the the metaphor that’s used most consistently about Further Education is the Cinderella sector; it doesn’t get to go to the ball and all the rest… if you start looking for it you see it everywhere – it’s in academic literature it’s in TES (Times Educational Supplement) on a regular basis as the Cinderella sector


…and my lovely colleague Maire, – and this was the Genesis of the book – said “you know I’ve always really hated that”; she’s a radical, very radical left-wing Feminist. She’s always hated it not so much because it’s a deficit metaphor because it’s gendered as well, and it’s all about – I think this links in with the keynote actually – it’s all about waiting for our Prince to come; it’s all about somebody else sorting it out for us, and she said it shouldn’t be about that, it should be about our own agency.


So she said there’s another Grimm story and it’s Twelve Dancing Princesses and what’s nice about it is although they’re repressed by a not particularly groovy father and locked away every night, what he doesn’t realize is they’ve got the secret passageway and they go to a Glade and dance all night…


…and what I like about that is that although they’re in a repressive context they’re still finding ways of having agency and she said you know it’s all very well OTL (Opportunity to Learn ) all the rest of it, but actually as teachers, once the door of the classroom is closed we have a great deal of power even in repressive contexts and that’s what they’re doing, and they’re doing it together, it’s also collective what they do.


So can FE live happily ever after ? If the sector is to be Grimm it should be so in our own terms as powerful Democratic, dancing, professionals. Marina Warner who’s work I love argues that fairy tales can act as fifth columnists defying existing structures while proposing alternatives. They offer magical metamorphoses to those who open the door, who pass on what they found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. If I could say “Wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it’s time for wishful thinking to have its day” that’s Warner (1994) and I would argue it’s time for the sector of the Dancing Princesses to have its due and for FE’s Cinders to be reignited.


A few paragraphs about you:

Joel Petrie has worked in post compulsory education as a lecturer, teacher educator, manager and trade unionist for longer than he cares to admit. He is currently completing an Educational Doctorate at Huddersfield University on leadership in FE. With Maire Daley and Professor Kevin Orr he co-edited the ‘Dancing Princesses’ trilogy. He cannot dance (but If Spiritualized plays he can be persuaded…).


What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?

You can read the introduction chapter to ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses’ annotated with excerpts from the original references


Just Click Here