Driving Society Forward.
The Last Parents’ Evening
Glenn Rikowski, London, 18th November 2006
From 1985 to 1989 I worked part-time at Loughton College of Further Education in Essex. I taught GCSE and A-level sociology (day and evening classes) and BTEC Communication Skills (mainly to computing students) I also occasionally taught other things: Law & Society (GCSE), Media Studies, a bit of History GCSE, and a foundation course for social workers. This was not my only part-time job; I taught in another college in Newham, did stints at various schools and adult education centres on a range of part-time and temporary contracts – whilst completing my PhD.
In 1989, Loughton College of FE changed to become Epping Forest College (EFC) – which was a Tertiary College (more on this later). I then got a full-time contract; teaching sociology, BTEC and media studies. In 1990, I set up an A-level philosophy course, starting it off as an evening class, and then developing it for full-time A-level students in 1991. EFC was a fantastic, exciting place to be in the early 1990s. The people I worked with were wonderful: the best set of work colleagues I have ever had the pleasure, and honour of working with. The college was set in some impressive grounds, with lots of green spaces, a small nature reserve, an observatory, Loughton Hall and an interesting variety of trees.
We have three boys. The youngest, Gregory, is doing his A-levels at Epping Forest College. In fact, one of the A-levels he is doing is in philosophy: i.e. – he is studying on the course that I set up in 1991!
Last Thursday was Gregory’s Parents’ Evening. Now, as readers of the Rikowski Newsletter will know, I have torn ligaments in my right ankle. I am in pain when my ankle is in certain positions, and I can only walk with a stick at present. Gregory really wanted me to come to this – his last Parents’ Evening, and in fact our last one ever too. As the college always seems to hold its Parents’ Evenings on Thursdays, when I teach at Northampton – over 100 miles away – I had never been to one since he had been a student there. I was one of these elusive, errant parents who never turned up! The sort of no-show parent that I would moan about when I was a teacher there!
Strapping my ankle up carefully, I decided to drive there. I just had to go. It was not far. Gregory was already there and Ruth would be arriving by London Underground.
Two Culture Shocks
We met up in the reception area, and then went to meet the teachers to see how Greg was progressing. But what I want to explore here is some of the tremendous changes the college has undergone.
The first was in 1989, when Loughton College of FE became Epping Forest College and was established as a Tertiary College. This meant that we had a kind of monopoly on all 16-19 students in the Epping Forest District. The school sixth-forms had been closed, some of the teachers had been re-located to the College, and the College more than doubled in size in terms of full-time students over the summer of 1989. The building work had been going on for some time, of course. Interestingly, from my point of view, one of the buildings the new College took over was the old Epping Forest High School, which had been next to the College and where I had a part-time contract in 1988-1989.
There were lots of adjustments to be made. The new staff members had to integrate – pronto. How would ex-school teachers drafted in get on with those coming from a further education (FE) background? Also, some of the students were resentful that their school sixth-forms had been closed and that they had been forced to come to the College. How would these Essex students relate to the students coming in from the London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Redbridge? On the whole, I think it worked out pretty well, and before the year was out the staff were acting as one and any cultural divisions (in terms of different ideas on pedagogy, attitudes to students and so on) were dissolving. Some students did not like the new set up, and a few left. But on the whole it worked. It was an exciting time, a good place to study and work. Our A-level results were rivalling some of the private schools in the area too.
However, just when things were bedding down the other big culture shock emerged: the Incorporation of Colleges of 1st April (an appropriate date) of 1993. Our college, previously part of the local education authority, was cast adrift like all others in the sector as an ‘incorporated’ college, competing against others to survive. The fallout was harsh: a new management regime, new contracts carrying worse working conditions and a drive on costs and efficiency. There were two national strikes organised – but both were called off at the last minute. Instead, individual colleges tended to fight against the new contracts on their own. Those teachers refusing to sign them got no pay rise. One of my friends held out for several years. There were constant restructurings, managerial changes and diktats from above.
I saw the writing on the wall, and the lack of will by the national union organisation to fight. I had been on the Essex Liaison Committee in the early 1990s, as well as being on the Branch Committee, so I could see what was happening, whilst not seeing a way through. I left in 1994 for the apparently sunlit uplands of higher education. My friends left too, over the following seven or eight years. We meet up still once a term, even though none of the group works at EFC any more, yet a few of my former workmates are still there. Thus, when I arrived for the Parents’ Evening on Thursday I still saw some familiar faces. That was great, with very mixed emotions for me. In terms of the teaching I have ever done, I enjoyed teaching there most of all. But the story of what was going to happen to the College was very mixed.
Apparently, a lot of the lovely grounds and at least one of the buildings (the former school where I taught) are being sold off for £22million to a property developer who will build a housing estate. The money will go towards building a new college on the remaining grounds. The open spaces, where students would frolic and play football, or where we would hold seminars in the summer term, plus perhaps some of the trees would go. I wondered whether the nature reserve would stay, especially as it was threatened in 1988/9 when Epping Forest College was established. It had been saved by Pete Relf’s effective and clever campaign then. Pete was a teacher there, a Communist Party member, a poet and a great hiker and environmentalist.
From what I could gather, the organisational upheavals and management changes were still there. I had caught the first wind of these in 1993/4. However, I know resulting stress and burdens for staff – were endemic to the FE system; not just something that Epping Forest College was facing. The curse of managerialism is not just confined to Essex FE colleges!
The Last Parents’ Evening
As I hobbled back to the car I realised how fondly I still thought of the College. Greg is very happy there too, studying film studies and sociology as well as philosophy. I pointed out to him where two huts or mobiles as they were called, used to stand: “I used to teach philosophy in those huts”, I told him. The night air was very fresh and clear, just as I remember it in comparison with east London, where I lived then and live now. That was my, our, last Parents’ Evening.
We got into the car, and I put on Comus on my MP3 player: the Song to Comus album. The car started to glide out of the car park. I got into listening to Drip, Drip – a disturbing, bleak yet also passionate track with graphic lyrics. As I drove along the service road, past the nature reserve, I drifted off into a kind of reverie; nostalgia mixed with anger and regrets at how things might have been if, if only. Just before the turn into the road, pain in my ankle jolted me back into the present: I hadn’t been concentrating enough on how I was pressing my foot on the brake. The pain moved anger to the fore in my emotions.
It was the end of an era, in more ways than one.
London, 18th November 2006
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