Every so often, learners find themselves with something to say, decisions they believe they should influence but nowhere to go. Years ago it was accepted that this just wasn't the kind of relationship that FE learners had with their learning institutions. "You do a survey at the end of your course, what more could you possibly want?" Things have thankfully advanced and changed for the better. In 2009, colleges introduced learner involvement strategies and new rules were brought in to ensure that college boards had at least two student governors. This brought about a step-change in culture and in practice. Groups like student councils and student parliaments were taken seriously, the development of autonomous students' unions in further education accelerated rapidly including the elections of full-time "sabbatical" student presidents.
These changes were largely met with applause and "about blooming time" by students, teachers and leaders alike. There was minimal resistance, those who still thought that the surveys and staff-led "focus groups" would do just fine. But progress was made. LSIS invested in student leadership programmes, the National Union of Students grew its training and support function for student leaders in further education and impacts were seen across the country. Everyone from class or course representatives to student governors now have structured training, development and support. Students that take lead roles in campus re-designs, students that defeat local authority plans to remove their bus travel subsidy, students that have a vote around the table to appoint their Principal, students leading campaigns to improve outcomes for underachieving groups within their community. These are substantial and important impacts.
So it was a real, *head-desk* moment to read on FE Week that the National Union of Students have branded plans for a learner-less Board for the FE Guild as a, "bad April fool" in a raucous exchange between NUS Vice President for FE Toni Pearce with the AoC’s Chief Exec Martin Doel.
The argument that the AoC have used - and (speaking as Toni Pearce’s predecessor) have consistently used is that there is no need for students on governing bodies (colleges or the guild) because there are better ways to engage; harking back to the days of a staff-led, tokenistic gesture-style learner voice model.
I spent around six years as a student and student representative in further education. I was the SU president for City College Plymouth and a student governor before I got elected to NUS. Colleges, and their national representative bodies, have nothing to fear from students having a seat at the table. It is nonsensical to believe that having good, learner representation on the Board of the FE Guild will somehow undermine its ability to engage with learners, if anything it will firmly enhance it. The guild has an opportunity to be a forward looking and progressive organisation that practices what it preaches. If it has anywhere in its illusive mission statement anything to do with improving outcomes for learners, it must choose to do that with learners, rather than at learners.