You might have noticed that the Government recently made a new high-level appointment: a Commissioner for Further Education with the power to shut down colleges. Then again, you might not. Apart from a couple of trade magazines, the story was barely covered at all. Yet not only does the post carry real influence and the potential to change thousands of lives, particularly for society's most vulnerable students, but there's also a pretty meaty salary package attached.
The appointment of a highly experienced and admirable candidate to this really important job makes my blood boil, but for all the wrong reasons. The role itself, whilst it needs a bit of tweaking and clarity, is to be welcomed. What rankles is that nobody seems to care. Can you envisage a world where a new public appointment was made, earning £800 a day, who had the power to close down schools or universities (never mind hospitals or other public services), and it wasn't front-page news? So why has this appointment gone seemingly unnoticed by so many?
Colleges are the persistently neglected aspect of our education system - neglected in both policy and press terms - and, having now worked in one for nearly a year, I have a few ideas as to why. The uncomfortable truth is that the people who make laws and write news stories followed, with a few exceptions, a conventional academic pathway, and like most of us they are influenced by their own experiences. (Michael Gove is the best example of this, I think. Everything he holds dearest - adoption, strict teachers, Russell Group universities - are the things which got him where he is. They work for lots of people, yes, but not everyone.) Secondly, further education offers 'all things to all people' - especially at colleges like mine, where we have an admirable and completely open access policy. This makes colleges exciting, diverse places to study and work, but it's much more difficult for us to pin down what we do, and explain it to others, than it is for institutions such as universities.
I really believe that students have a crucial role to play in overcoming both these challenges. There's plenty that people like me can get on with from our offices, whether that's telling MPs all about FE, writing articles or responding to consultations - and it's great that more colleges are taking those things seriously - but the passion students bring to their training and studies beats anything a bloke in a suit and tie can do. Of course, spreading the word in our local areas is critical, ensuring that more and more people see FE as a valuable route to great jobs and higher study, but nationally the country needs to see more active students unions in colleges, and engagement with organisations like the Youth Parliament and National Union of Students. The election of Toni Pearce, the first ever NUS president from FE, is an amazing step in the right direction.
The system needs more people from FE backgrounds to get involved with politics - because until Parliament itself is more diverse, the policies emanating from it will always be biased. I get frustrated when the media accuses politicians of being 'out of touch' - which doesn't mean that I don't think many of them are. But the real problem is that, by and large, people from particular backgrounds simply don't go into politics - which would be the best way of making the others more 'in touch'. In essence, whilst it's definitely the job of politicians to make the field more attractive, it's also the job of the people who are (understandably) upset with the status quo to get properly stuck in.
And more than anything else, I'd like to see the FE sector become part of that change. After all, colleges educate millions of people each year and are responsible for reducing unemployment in some of the country's most deprived areas, nurturing engineers, electricians and environmentalists - yet the sector barely gets an opinion piece when a new tsar is appointed who can shut us down.
A very influential person in the FE world told me recently that he'd go mad if he heard us described as a 'Cinderella sector' again, and I don't want to incur his wrath. But, that said, FE needs to continue developing its own vision and voice if it is going to carry the media and policy influence it deserves and needs - and students are a hugely important part of that. After all, Cinderella ended up with far more power, influence, success and - most importantly - happiness than the Ugly Sisters did, but she had to venture outside her own four walls to get started.