On 23rd March 2020, the UK went into lockdown in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. As an early doctoral researcher, I am using this sequence of four blogs to record my navigation of my research journey in this unsettled moment. It feels more like mapping a seascape than a landscape. There are institutional structures deep beneath the surface (“Education” “Pedagogy” “The College” “The University”), and the fluid, rhythmical tides and currents of power (government, educational leadership, colonialism, capitalism, nationalism, the hetero-patriarchy) – and counter-currents of resistance, strongest at their intersection (Crenshaw, 1988). But there is also the disorientation of an environment missing the familiarity of landmarks. We are all at sea.
In this first blog I aim to map where I am, what is happening around me, the disruptions of education including FE “as normal” and what these disruptions say to us. This will include locating my own “messy” perspective as a researcher (Mosselsohn, 2010), shaped by my journey up to this point as practitioner and activist, as well as the wider forces of theoretical and political influence around me. Using Lefebvre’s (2017) rhythmanalysis as a tool to guide the research process, certain questions emerge. What can we understand about further education (FE) based on what is revealed and what is hidden in a moment of crisis? When the “post-pandemic” education system starts to emerge, what form will it take? What does this mean for the students I have historically worked with, and for the research I want to undertake into the struggle for their access to the education system?
The pandemic appears to be a crisis point for FE, though it could also be argued that this is an intensification of existing crisis. Slater (2014) identifies the neoliberal practice of permanent reform in education as a “politics of crisis”, while Rouxel (2015) points to FE as being destabilised through crisis of professional identity and the problematic imposition of metrics, where educational value is equated with student quantitative performance. FE underwent incorporation in the early 90s. My experiences as an FE worker and activist from 2004 onwards have suggested FE is consistently insecure and unstable in terms of identity, purpose and funding. Feeding into this instability are inconsistent and often competing narratives about what FE is: FE is about second chances but recognises that it serves those failed by earlier faults in the wider education sector. FE is profoundly local in contrast to the cosmopolitan nature of HE, feeding into local economies and serving local communities: it must become more flexible but needs to restore the value of traditional skills and trades. FE is there to facilitate cultural integration and cohesion but colleges are in permanent competition and must strive for excellence in order to recruit enough students to fund the excellent provision they aim to deliver.
FE has an organic hunger for survival and solidarity. This has sustained an (admittedly dysfunctional) existence through decades of cuts, identity crisis, broader community vandalism and increasing inroads of “the market” into the schools which feed into the sector and the universities which feed from the sector. COVID-19 represents an historical crisis for FE but not a passage from tranquillity to storm. In the mid-2010s, the austerity government attempted to manage this crisis through engaging in FE commissioner led “FE area reviews” consulting those defined as stakeholders (business leaders, college leaders, LEPs) on how the sector could be pushed into practices of efficient co-working. Unions were grudgingly allowed a space to separately vocalise the view “from the ground” and repeatedly identified that co-working exists organically in the human connections (including unions) within the sector but also the impossibility of facilitating stable formal co-working in colleges pushed into a market. A number of mergers were pushed through. The expected financial re-stablilising and pragmatic co-working efficiency practices were not delivered.
In May 2020, FE week published leaked government plans for a White Report which admitted “recent attempts to financially stabilise the sector with an area review programme and restructuring funds totalling around half a billion pounds were deemed to have failed” and heralding radical plans to bring FE back into tighter governmental control. Interestingly, the leaked report used the language of “community”, re-emphasising the college as a community heart in contrast to the relationship-with and service-of business prioritised over the last decade of governmental statements on FE. It seems highly likely that under the current government any new “community focus” for FE is intended to feed into a greater discourse around localism, nation and Brexit rather than a deeper re-democratisation of college structures. But the ground is opened up further for contest.
Lefebvre (2017) instructs us that in historical moments, time can become quicker or slower, move forwards or backwards. The rhythmanalyist, he says, notes this, listening in to the interweavings of secret and public rhythms: moving beyond what is seen to what is sensed and discarded in the conventional measurement of phenomena.
In the moment of pandemic, thinking about the roles I inhabit (former FE lecturer, current HE lecturer, mother, trade unionist, future FE researcher) I try to listen in. What are the rhythms of life in lockdown? On Thursday nights my daughter counts-down, appearing periodically to announce the time left. At 8pm we take to the doorstep (are doorsteps our equivalent to Lefebvre’s balcony, in giving us the distance of a viewing point of the quiet roads we oversee?), and clap-for-carers, including my children’s father who they have not seen or touched for 2 months. My daughter’s hands come together and part until they are red and sore: her little hands touching themselves in the absence of a father’s hand to hold and sooth. Around the cycle of VE celebrations, big band and Vera Lynn blast out. The rhythms of celebration of the saving and nurturing of life have blended with the fanfares celebrating the taking of life, all intermixed with a silent nod to Nation.
My daughter’s father, like many keyworkers, came back to education as an adult. What does this weekly clamour mean for the students and education workers I have worked with historically in FE and plan to engage in research? FE and its contributions are poorly valued and understood (Bennett and Smith, 2019). The adult returner students I have worked with follow pathways into what are now called “key worker” roles. Before reaching college, these students (like Lefebvre) often already listen into and respond to physical rhythms beyond the visual metrics that will be brought to the foreground in their formal education. They read touch, speak soft reassurances, sense through smell the need for toileting or changing, decode cries from not just pitch but rhythm and the gaps in between. Will this clap-for-carers, this ceremony of national gratitude, translate into a revaluing of these students? Does the clap signify for FE a new respect for these embryonic nurses, teachers, social workers, and their experience in calming, soothing, and guiding their children, patients, elders?
I listen in also to the rhythms of union work. My weeks are punctuated cyclically by meetings with management. Survival of the worker (physical survival, and contractual survival) crashes against the language of institutional survival; softened speeches in defence of the neoliberal university, and what Dakka (2019) identifies as the “ambivalent relationship of academics, especially the elite, towards competition” as our post-92 leaders call on the government to intervene in the competition to retain the imagined fair market. There is a moratorium on unconditional offers. The future remains destabilised. We draw and reinforce lines of resistance, interconnect our existence as workers into hundreds of home/work spaces.
Drifting in and out of our shared work-space I hear my partner receiving and transmitting training and organising to keep schools places of distance: the threat is more immediate for colleges than universities, and more again for schools than colleges. Union leaders are paraded as pantomime villains plotting, “the blob”. It is deadly farce.
Elsewhere, in other virtual spaces, I guide reps at the college I left behind and join meetings to bring together different branches, different unions, parents with workers. While these take place virtually, our discussions consider repeatedly the threat of physical intimacy. Spaces between bodies, the screening and containment of breath and the moisture it carries. Breath, its disruption and blockage, will become an increasingly urgent demand as the pandemic continues to unfold.
Bennett, P. and Smith, R., 2019. Identity and resistance in Further Education: Routledge.
Crenshaw, K., 1988. Race, Reform, And Retrenchment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Law Review Association.
Dakka, F., 2019. Competition, innovation and diversity in higher education: dominant discourses, paradoxes and resistance. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41(1), pp.80-94.
Department for Education, 2019. Area Review: End Of Program Report. London: HM government.
Lefebvre, H., 2017. Rhythmanalysis. London: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Linford, N., 2020. Government to take ownership of colleges. FE week, [online] Available at: <https://feweek.co.uk/2020/05/07/government-to-take-ownership-of-colleges/> [Accessed 10 May 2020].
Mosselson, J., 2010. Subjectivity and reflexivity: locating the self in research on dislocation. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(4), pp.479-494.
Rouxel, D., 2015. Dancing in plain sight. In: M. Daley, K. Orr and J. Petrie, ed., Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Croydon: Institute of Education Press, pp.131-137.
Slater, G., 2014. Education as recovery: neoliberalism, school reform, and the politics of crisis. Journal of Education Policy, 30(1), pp.1-20.