FE matters too

by Alicia Bowman and Rob Peutrell

In thinking about what matters in education, let’s not forget further education – or the wider world of post-16 and adult education, not all of which goes on in colleges.  Our ‘Cinderella’ status has often been remarked upon.  Overshadowed by schools and universities, our sector has been neglected by policy makers, as well as by those seeking to defend public education.

Since colleges were made independent of the local authorities following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, much has been lost to further education.  Non-vocational programmes were an early casualty, so eroding the notion that learning has a cultural and social value irreducible to economic calculus.  Since colleges were ‘set free’ from local authority control, FE has been a testing-ground for marketisation, short-termism and ‘new managerial’ practices.   The consequence has been the narrowing of provision, policy churn, and systemic uncertainty.  Our salaries lag behind those of school colleagues; zero hour contracts are commonplace in the sector  And FE has been hit by funding cuts beyond those experienced by schools and universities.  Adult funding has been cut by 40% since 2008.  The funding rate at £4,000 for 16 to 18 year olds is 22% less than it is for 11 to 16 year olds, and less than half that of higher education. Not surprising, therefore, that the sector might sometimes appear to wallow in its Cinderella persona.

One reason – perhaps the reason – for the neglect of our sector is that it doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ academic route understood by those whose voices get heard in public debate.  FE students tend to be from less advantaged – working class and ethnic minority – backgrounds. Some 15% have learning difficulties or disabilities. No wonder that FE has been described as education ‘for other people’s children’ – the vocational poor relation.  It is telling that, as Minister for Business, Industry and Skills, Vince Cable’s advisors felt able to recommend the axing of FE colleges in England and Wales because ‘nobody will really notice’.  – at least, nobody who really mattered.

But further and adult education should matter to everyone concerned about educational access, social equality, and ending the discriminatory vocational-academic divide.  It may have been battered, but FE remains a large, diverse sector.  It currently caters for 2.3 million adult students (19+) and over three-quarters of a million 16 to 18 year-olds, with an additional 71,000 16 to18 year-olds undertaking apprenticeships through colleges, and 24,000 14-to-15 year-olds enrolled part-time.  And despite the battering, further education really can make a difference for youngsters who did not excel at school or adults let down by the schooling system, as the Transforming Lives and Communities project led by Vicky Duckworth and Rob Smith is beginning to document.

Angelus Novus

Is it surprising that Walter Benjamin’s account of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, at times seems like a fitting description of our sector? Driven to implement the next ‘big’ idea, whilst the heap of ill-conceived ones grows sky-high behind us, the Angel -its back to the future- has no time to pause and consider what has not worked and why?

For some, Brexit offers new hope for FE colleges.  Investing in skills and training is seen as a precondition of prosperity.  However, how this fares in practice is yet to be seen.  The impact of Brexit on public spending notwithstanding, FE is littered with big ideas that were ill-conceived, sometimes abused, and with quality inadequately overseen.  Franchising provision, Individual Learning Accounts and Train to Gain were the most well-known.  There are already hints that apprenticeships – the new big idea – might also prove to be an ill-considered scramble.  Questions have been raised over: the future of non-apprenticeship vocational learning, the commitment of employers to the apprenticeships project, the quality of much of the apprenticeship offer, and whether the work-based learning will result in genuine sectoral skills rather than meet the specific requirements of particular employers who are being asked to take the lead in setting the standards for a ‘reformed technical education’.  This is not to mention a £200m levy pot reduction forecast by the Treasury in November last year.


The campaign for adequate funding remains key to the future of the sector.  But equally crucial is whether the sector can mobilise its internal resources – its capacity for thinking and creative agency at all levels – to challenge its Cinderella status and re-imagine itself with an assertive sense of purpose.  To that end research matters.

Our experience of post-graduate study persuades us of the crucial relationship between practice and research.  Research is personally challenging but professionally enlivening.  It gives access to insight and evidence and encourages a culture of professional learning that can contest opinion-led policy making.  We are encouraged therefore by FETL’s recommendation that in a rapidly changing landscape, FE sector leaders should encourage research engagement and invest in learning cultures in which research is valued .  Nurturing links between colleges and the HE research community – as well as with other organisations – is one way of developing this engagement.

There are all kinds of questions that should – and are being – asked within our sector.  What role will colleges play in local lifelong learning systems?  What kinds of internal cultures are needed to engage and develop the knowledge and experience of FE teachers and other staff?  What practical steps and changes in ethos are needed to nurture reflective, critically informed professionalism?  How will vocational education prepare students not just for the immediate labour market but for a world of work characterised by rapid technological change and – let’s call it out – systemic inequality?  How will colleges combine their vocational mission with an ethical civic vision that genuinely seeks to nurture democratic capacities?

Let’s start a conversation.  Engaging in research ought to be a fundamental part of teaching and learning in FE, too.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.





What Matters is: Fake News and Media Education

by Becky Parry.

There’s a whoop of excitement which travels around the class like wild fire. The teacher has just shown his class of year five children a photo of a UFO which was ‘seen’ by another staff member the night before. The photo is fictional, as is the sighting; it is part of a simulated news production activity.  The children are on their second day of producing a news programme and their excitement is not generated by the idea that a teacher has seen a UFO, nor is it disbelief; they are excited because one child has just worked out that they can use the story as news. Throughout the room the children’s voices announce: ‘it’s news’, ‘we can use it as news.’ They look for confirmation from their teacher who affirms and then they cheer.

This memorable moment took place during the, ESRC funded, ‘Developing Media Literacy’ research project led by the Institute of Education UCL, which focused on learning progression in media education. What might we expect children of different ages to be capable of understanding about media and how might we expect their learning to develop? Working with two specialist Media Arts schools in the UK, and their feeder primary schools, we undertook a sequence of learning activities in collaboration with teachers that enabled us to teach key Media Studies concepts, right across the age range. There will be those who voice concerns about the rationale of a programme of media education for primary aged children. It is often assumed these sorts of experiences are superficial and they don’t reflect what really happens in the news-room. However, internationally, media educators recognise the increasing need for media or digital literacy which enables young people to navigate, what Jenkins (2006) describes as the ‘new global participatory culture’. In this activity, focused on news, we aimed to address what Jenkins call the ethics challenge, that is to say:

The Participation Gap — the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.

The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.

The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.

(Jenkins 2006 p.3)

During this week of news production simulation the children took on the roles of reporters, as well as accountants, advertisers and regulators. A cost was attached to all activities – for resources (laptops, stationery), training and going out to do interviews all involved the children spending ‘money’. The task was to produce a radio news bulletin for their target audience and to make a profit. For a primary class this may seem an unnecessarily complex simulation, but it enabled the children to occupy roles well outside their own experience. In doing so they encountered a series of ethical dilemmas and had to make what Jenkin’s describes as ‘Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.’ They also had to learn to engage with ‘Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of the real-world.’ (Jenkins 2006 p.4)

They had to balance the pursuit of truth and accuracy with an economic imperative and they had a strict deadline.

In role, as news gatherers encountering the UFO story, the children were excited by what they recognised as bigger than those they had come up with so far which either copied national news or resembled a school newsletter. At this point they did not worry about the veracity of the story – they had a strong ability to suspend disbelief. However, they were also developing an explicit understanding of magnitude as a criteria for news gathering, experiencing ‘in role’ the same feeling a journalist might have when a ‘big’ story breaks.

Later on I encountered Matthew who was upset. Having been checked by the two regulators, the news story he had written was found to be inaccurate. He was covered a story about a child who had fallen in the icy conditions outside and rather than interview the child and find out what had happened, Matthew decided to just ‘make it up’. It’s my guess that he didn’t think it was that important and he knew there was a cost involved to a face to face interview. However, he hadn’t bargained on the seriousness with which the two regulators took their role of fact checking. They went and interviewed the child and were in possession of the ‘facts,’ quickly realising Matthews’s account didn’t match the child’s. Later Matthew reflected ‘you shouldn’t lie’ and fellow group member Isaac added ‘well if it’s just about how many pieces a chocolate bar broke into it doesn’t matter, but if it is like the world is going to blow up, it does’. Matthew got to rewrite his story but his group have to pay a hefty fine. What bothered him was the thought that his group might not win and that his peers were disappointed he had lied.

The process of production created moments of crisis or decision-making which enabled the children to grapple with some of the most challenging issues we face in contemporary society. After Matthew had been fined the children all began rapidly checking their sources of information. The authenticity of the UFO story was called into question and many of them dropped it for fear of being fined. Others decided to go ahead because, although it was clearly fake, it was something the teachers had made up – so that was ok! This programme of activity was key to our findings that young children are capable of grappling with complex ideas in order to explore the world around them. Interestingly, the whole activity ran parallel to the aftermath of the Levison Inquiry. When I interviewed the children, later in the process, it was clear they had been paying attention to the news coverage, raising questions about the moral judgements of journalists listening in to people’s mobile phone messages.

Since this research project was reported, all traces of media education are long gone from the primary curriculum in England.  Perhaps, criticality is surplus to requirements in our post-truth, fake-news times; it hardly serves those seeking political office or positions of power. Indeed there is, arguably, an assumption that in contemporary times, anyone can create news and all of us like and share fake stories with impunity. However, as Barack Obama suggested at a recent conference:

If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.

Clearly, whether its about UFOs, ice accidents or the numbers attending the presidential inauguration – ‘the truth is out there’. Media education is key to equipping students with the skills they need to participate in establishing their own accounts and representing their own truths ethically and with judgement.

Becky is Assistant Professor of Education at the School of Education, University of Nottingham.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Jenkins, H. (2006). White paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Berkeley, US: MacArthur Foundation.


Play Populism Bingo

By Becky Parry


As 2016 closed it was hard to avoid the sound of journalists sharpening their obituary writing pencils. The ill concealed glee at the death of another celebrity seemed to provide a welcome break from the same old, same old news generated by elections and referendums. And who wouldn’t prefer to watch a David Bowie retrospective or a Victoria Wood special than listen to guffawing politicians swilling beer whilst pretending to be ‘the voice of the ordinary people’? Perhaps most shocking was the ease with which voters were won over by the impossible promises, misuse of statistics and fear mongering on offer. We may like complexity, nuance and ambiguity in our idols, but we don’t seem to appreciate these qualities in our politicians or our journalists.

It was therefore with a mix of amusement and awe that I reacted to my encounter with Populism Bingo, one of many resources of Kavi, the National Audiovisual Institute, Dept for Media Education and Audiovisual Media in (you guessed it) Finland!

Why amusement? The game invites students to analyse political speeches and spot the populist tactics – the winner spots them all. I chuckled to myself (yes demonically) thinking of all those staff meetings spent playing ‘Jargon Bingo,’ spotting the latest euphemisms for cuts or redundancy. This sounded like fun! I was grateful to Saara Salomaa, a specialist media educator from the institute, for introducing it to me.


And why was I awe-struck? It struck me that this resource could only be produced in a country where media education is enshrined in law and an integral part of the curriculum. Neither are true of the UK and we certainly don’t have a government supported agency in charge of media education parallel to the one in Finland. The level of intellectual challenge and criticality demanded in this seemingly light-hearted game, speaks of a country comfortable with the role of the public in holding their politicians and journalists to account. And this was one of many resources (also available in English) encouraging children to engage critically, creatively and competently with the media. Significantly, Saara was visiting academics in the UK such as Professors Guy Merchant and Cathy Burnett with whom I have recently published Literacy, Media Technology: Past, Present Future. The visit was part of DigiLitEY a European funded project, enabling the dissemination of research focused on the very youngest children’s engagements with media. There is no shortage of relevant expertise and internationally renowned research in media education in the UK.

So, what matters to me this week is whether UK politicians and journalists could stop the ghoulish celebrity ambulance chasing and start to hold the population in enough esteem to campaign and report morally, ethically and with respect for expert professional opinion. Well maybe someday, if media education becomes enshrined in law in the UK and part of the curriculum they might. At least the young would then be able to spot the worst excesses of populist politics and journalism. In the meantime we will all have to play Populism Bingo! I think David and Victoria would approve.

Becky Parry is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham in the School of Education.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Everybody’s reading – ‘The digital native: myth and reality’


This month’s ‘everybody’s reading’ article is Neil Selwyn’s ‘The Digital native: myth and reality’.

The technology may have moved on since the article was written, but do the issues remain the same?

How far has this debate moved?

Is the article still relevant?

What do Selwyn’s ideas tell us about education and technology more generally?

Join us on Tuesday 24th January to debate the issues surrounding young people, technology and education. We will be online 7-8pm using #wmedchat.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the article and your experiences in the classroom.



Merry Christmas!

Congratulations on making it through the first term!

We hope you all have a well-earned rest and enjoy spending time with the people that matter to you.

If you are already looking for some January inspiration, there are some fantastic events coming up in the new year:

On the 17th January, Lulu Healy will be exploring the role of the body’s senses and perception in doing, learning and teaching mathematics. ‘Seeing hearing and feeling mathematics: Learning from Disabled Students’ is free to attend.

Interested in what goes on behind the scenes of evidence-based policy? Dr Adetayo Kasim will be presenting a public seminar on the design and analysis of education trials on Tuesday 31st January.

We hope to as many of you there as possible.

What Matters is taking a short break over the festive period and will be back in January.






Subject knowledge for primary teachers: the power of community?

By Rupert Knight

The challenge of subject knowledge

Like it or not, we’re working in an educational era where individual subjects are prioritised.

The messages are there in documents like the 2016 White Paper and in the very structure of the curriculum.  It’s notable that England is highly unusual internationally in defining its curriculum in terms of separate subjects.   For primary teachers in particular, this serves to heighten the perpetual challenge of subject knowledge and the debates that have raged about generalist versus specialist teachers.

What do we mean by subject knowledge? 

Perhaps the best-known work on this has come from the U.S. educationalist Lee Shulman, dating back to the 1980s.  In his attempt to categorise teacher knowledge, Shulman drew a clear distinction between the ‘substantive’ knowledge of a subject and what he termed ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’ (PCK). Put simply, PCK is knowledge of how to translate a subject into a teachable form.  This recent TES article makes the point vividly.

While much debated ever since, PCK as a specialist form of teacher expertise has an enduring appeal. So, how can teachers, now increasingly trained on school-based courses, develop strong, classroom-oriented subject knowledge across a broad range of disciplines?  One under-exploited resource may lie in schools themselves: the power of community.

Viv Ellis of King’s College has suggested that subject knowledge needs to be thought of in a dynamic and collective way, as some of his articles make clear. He rejects views of a static body of material to be mastered and refers to subject knowledge existing among teachers, heavily influenced by the features and culture of a school setting.  Although his work refers chiefly to trainee English teachers, this may be a powerful way of responding to this challenge more widely.

How might we work collaboratively within schools in order to rise to this challenge? 

More specifically, how might experienced teachers help to induct newer colleagues into this world of subject expertise?  Well, firstly we need to recognise that the whole idea of a subject-based community within a primary school is far from straightforward.  All too often, teachers operate behind closed doors.  A low status is accorded to non-judgmental, peer-to-peer development activity.  Based on published research in this field, it seems that a number of practices might be useful.  Here are just four to consider:

  • Within and beyond school networks: within school study or reading groups; the use of specialist leaders of education; networking through organisations such as maths hubs or the STEM Centre and links with subject interest groups at universities, including ours. Perhaps you also have links with local secondary school departments?


  • The creation and study of ‘cases’: compiling case study material, based on strategies for teaching particular concepts or on common misconceptions, can be a valuable resource for analysis and discussion. They provide models for examining teachers’ decision-making and professional judgment.  This idea is illustrated in a science context by John Loughran in this paper.
  • Team teaching: this can take a variety of forms for different purposes. Quite apart from the ‘safety-net’, this allows access, through collaborative planning, to teacher’s often tacit knowledge and decision-making.  This is illustrated, along with other aspects of this post, in this article.
  • Inquiry: collaborative inquiry might take the form of collegial problem solving such as the increasingly popular Lesson Study approach, as explained here, along with evidence of its impact,  or perhaps a more formal action research approach could be useful, as you implement and evaluate a particular intervention

How are you and your colleagues working collaboratively to develop subject knowledge?

This post was originally published on the Primary Education Network Blog (PEN).

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.


Everybody’s Reading – student voice

This month we are discussing Lessons learned: student voice at a school for pupils experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties by Edward Sellman. Click on the link the download the article.

How you can get involved:

  1. Read the article and leave your thoughts and comments using the ‘Comments’ facility on this blog post. We hope others will respond, and the conversation will develop.
  2. Join our twitter virtual meeting.  We will be discussing this article on twitter – on 13th December 2016 – 7pm-8pm UK time. Our twitter handle is @whatmattersUoN and we will use the hashtag #wmedchat. Please use the hashtag or we wont see your tweets! (We will ‘storify’ the chat if you can’t make it, or time zones make it impossible to participate).
  3. Why not organise your own reading group to discuss the article?  You can arrange this when you want, where you want, with whom you want! From two of you over coffee to a whole staff meeting or with colleagues from other schools.  Whatever works for you. All that matters is that you read, think, discuss. If you do this, why not write a short summary of your discussion and post it on the ‘Comments’ section here?
  4. We would like to invite anyone interested in the project to join us for a festive drink on Tuesday 13th December at the Hemsley on University Park Campus from 5.00pm onwards. Just send us an email to let us know that you are coming.