What’s in a name?

Does our job title determine our access to staff development? asks Mark Ravenhall


10 10 2019


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Last week, a mini debate emerged on Twitter about how we refer to people working in adult education. ‘Staff and volunteers’, or just ‘staff’? It reminded me of the discussions we had when developing the recent publication Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: implications for workforce development.

Last year we asked ten people from across the UK to summarise their views on the implications as they saw them. When we brought the authors together to discuss common themes, we agreed to opt for an inclusive definition that eventually became our third principle in developing future workforce plans:

Workforce development embraces all those who support adult learning: volunteers, support staff, counsellors, administrators, teachers, managers, assessors, brokers, and leaders at all levels.

The final eight principles were the result of discussions with 80 researchers, policymakers and practitioners across the UK. Impact forums in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Edinburgh all agreed that it was important to take a common approach –   because there is no commonality of approach to adult learning across the UK.

Approaches to strategy and workforce development have become increasingly divergent in recent years, and with increased devolution to city regions this trend is likely to continue. Everyone agreed we wanted a set of principles that applied at college, local authority, and training provider level, as well as regionally and nationally.

But education is not an equal space and, I’m afraid, that applies to staff as well as learners.

In our new report, Helen Chicot, working in Greater Manchester, explains how increasingly adult learning professionals work in multi-agency settings where roles can be ‘blurred’, and collaborative approaches are used. Such approaches demand leaders and practitioners to work in innovative ways. An essential skillset is managing ‘polyvocal conversations’, particularly with learners.

Similarly, Colin Forrest refers to the concept of ‘boundary spanning’ where people work across roles in multi-agency settings and address the multiple needs of the most vulnerable groups.

Those who have worked in adult education for a few years will find nothing new in such ideas. Many traditions of adult learning rely heavily on the concept of fluid boundaries between the roles of teachers, volunteers, managers, and leaders. In some models the distinctions disappear altogether.

However, teachers become tutors; senior lecturers become curriculum leaders; assessors become work-based skills advisors. Sometimes it is merely to fit the latest funding stream or strategy, but there’s no denying it’s also about identity. I have long thought that everyone ‘who goes to college’ (students, teachers, managers, principals) should all be ‘members’. There’s a compelling equality of status about it and commonality of purpose. All members of the college.

But education is not an equal space and, I’m afraid, that applies to staff as well as learners. The stark divisions between the already educated and the ‘learning poor’ are clear in Learning and Work Institute’s annual participation in learning survey that tells us those who already have will be given more. Prior education is a major determinant of future access to learning, as is social group and professional status.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that these divisions are often reflected in access to professional learning. There are huge differentials in pay and conditions, and these are often reinforced by access to funded training.

According to the most recent training needs analysis from England’s Education and Training Foundation, 70% of senior management team members had external training funded by their employer. For middle managers this figure is 60%; advanced practitioners (40%); lecturers, teachers and tutors (39%); classroom assistants (36%). Although such statistics never paint the whole picture the ETF should be applauded for collecting them. They challenge us all to rethink our approaches to workforce development.

The analysis suggests that leaders on higher wages, better conditions, greater job security, and healthier pension pots are more likely to access funded training in future. Those that can pay will be supported. On the other hand, those on contracts, part-timers, those working across organisations—the ‘boundary spanners’ who could be the future of adult learning—may only receive compliance-based courses.

What’s more, training tends to reinforce organisational hierarchies; managers learn alongside with other managers, teachers with teachers, and probably neither alongside employers. Learning together, vertically across job roles and across organisations could be the first step in spanning those boundaries.

But it in the meantime, training for adult learning professionals—volunteers, teachers, leaders alike–reflects that of the wider workforce: job title determines access to further training.

I look forward to discussing these points and other views from across Europe at the event on 23 October in London. You can join the discussion on EPALE blogs from the thinkpiece authors.

Mark Ravenhall, associate for Learning and Work Institute