Post-16 Educator interviews candidates for Deputy General Secretary of the National Education Union


This October, members of NEU will elect a Deputy General Secretary. The winning candidate may ultimately go on to become the first elected General Secretary of the NEU, taking over from Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney who have been Joint General Secretary since the amalgamation of the NUT and ATL. Post-16 issues tend often to be overlooked in debates about 'education' which are more frequently focused on statutory schooling. Given that, with over 450,000 members, the NEU is the largest education union in Europe, this election offers an important opportunity to discuss the challenges facing the post-16 sector, with regard especially to school sixth forms and sixth form colleges. These include funding, teachers' conditions and pay, the ongoing academic/vocational divide, T-levels, and the possible loss of BTEC qualifications, as well as building workplace power and effective collaboration with UCU and other unions in and outside the different parts of the post-16 sector. Daniel Whittall spoke with all three candidates on behalf of Post-16 Educator, with a view to getting a sense of where each stands in relation to post-16 issues.

Gawain Little

1. Tell us about your own experiences of post-16 education: what stands out to you in your memories of it?
I left school at 16 and went on to do A-levels at sixth form college. I think moving to college gave me real independence and confidence in my education. It also offered more flexibility to achieve the goals I had set myself – picking up A-level further maths in my second year and completing the first year of the course in the summer holidays. I think without the opportunities that my college provided for me, I may well not have gone on to do the degree I did and ultimately become a teacher. My concern, arising from that, is that without a significant increase in post-16 funding, and without the protection of sixth form colleges, FE colleges and the staff who work in them, those same opportunities will be harder and harder to access in the future. It is a sector which changed my life and I want to fight to protect it.

2. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the post-16 sector at the moment?
I think the biggest threat is funding. Post-16 funding has been inadequate for far too long and the cumulative effect has a knock on for staff, students and the sector as a whole. Within NEU campaigns for education funding, we need to raise the voice of the post-16 sector so that it cannot be ignored by politicians and policy-makers.
I also think there is an immediate and specific threat to terms and conditions in sixth form colleges arising from this. As inadequate funding and deficit budgets lead to more and more mergers across the sector, the terms and conditions we have managed to maintain in sixth form colleges, and the national negotiations with the Sixth Form Colleges Association, come under greater threat. We have seen the impact that incorporation in the 1990s, and the separation of FE pay and conditions from schoolteachers has had on our members in FE. We have also seen how sophisticated targeted balloting and action in the sixth form college sector has brought pay back in line for our members. We need to be fighting to improve pay and conditions in FE to match those in compulsory education, not watching the breakup of pay and conditions in the sixth form sector. This will mean organising collectively and taking action to force employers to the table where necessary.

3. What are your thoughts on the government’s new T Level qualifications, and how do you think the NEU should respond to them?
I am concerned that T-levels represent yet another attempt by government to raise the status of technical and vocational qualifications in exactly the wrong way. I believe we need a complete rethink of post-16 qualifications to consider:
• Whether specialisation takes place too early within our education system;
• How we can ensure a broad and balanced curriculum within which students have the opportunity to focus and develop a range of skills and competencies;
• What practical moves can be made to break down the ‘academic/technical-vocational’ divide, including looking at parity of funding; and
• How we can develop 14-19 pathways in education that provide opportunities to all students, rather than forcing them down narrow paths based on an outdated view of education.

4. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the academic and the vocational in the current post-16 system, and how if at all do you think this relationship ought to be reformed in future?
I believe we need a complete review of 14-19 education led by the profession itself. I think we need to move beyond the ‘academic/vocational’ divide and genuinely offer equal status and the ability for students to pick from across a spectrum of courses including academic and vocational elements. This needs to be part of a wider development of a National Education Service which provides education to all from cradle to grave. As a union, we need a long-term strategy to fight for this alternative vision of education.

5. For young people it can often feel as though there is a continuing pressure to go to university or be considered a ‘failure’. What are your thoughts on this?
We need a much wider conception of education. I agree with widening university participation but that should not be counterposed to high quality vocational and technical education. Both are possible and both should be valued. That means a real conversation about the purpose and process of education in this country.

6. What aspects of your own campaign platform do you think would make a material difference to education workers in the post-16 sector?
My campaign is firmly focused on building the power of our members in the workplace, to come together and collectively change their working lives. To do that, they need the support of the whole union. I want to create a new anti-discrimination unit – bringing together policy, organising and legal specialists – to tackle discrimination, sexism and sexual harassment faced by members and students in the workplace and in wider society. I also want to create a new Union Training College and Activist Academy to support and develop a new layer of local and workplace leaders, and regional and national reps’ conferences to build on the confidence of our members. By investing in our members, we can create the strong union we need to win in every sector of education.

7. Although you’re running for deputy general secretary of the NEU, this is obviously also a time when further and higher education workers are facing unprecedented attacks on pay and conditions, with redundancies and course closures rolling across the sector. Do you see these struggles as relevant to NEU members, and how do you think professional unity and solidarity can be built between education unions across the post-16 sector?
I am a firm believer in Professional Unity and am a member and officer of Unify – the campaign for one education union. This is not just an aspiration. As Chair of the NUT Professional Unity Committee, I played a leading role in bringing about the amalgamation which created the National Education Union. I have both the commitment and the track record of delivering on unity. I want to see us working closely with UCU across the education sectors we represent, including FE and HE, and to explore how we can take that collaboration further, ending competitive recruitment and uniting education professionals into a powerful force for good.

Martin Powell-Davies

1. Tell us about your own experiences of post-16 education: what stands out to you in your memories of it?
I was educated in a suburban secondary school in Leatherhead, Surrey, going on to take science and maths ‘A’-levels in its sixth form. The existence of local grammar schools meant my school struggled to be genuinely ‘comprehensive’ and it was sometimes hard standing out as one of those who found exams easier than most. I still remember having “My Perfect Cousin” by the Undertones being sung at me as I walked up the stairs of the Sixth Form Block!
Thanks to the support of some young physics teachers in particular – a subject I would go on to teach myself – I was accepted for a place at Cambridge University. It was only there that the gulf in resources that students with a more privileged background had received in their schools became clearer to me, particularly in laboratory equipment which I had not used.
I taught for many years as a science teacher in what was Catford Girls’ School in South-East London. Until falling post-16 numbers made it unviable, I taught Physics A-level, always trying to find ways to help students to gain confidence in what has often been a male-dominated subject. Returning recently to classroom teaching after working full-time for the National Education Union, I have enjoyed again using my skills to teach the maths and physics elements of BTEC Engineering courses at a FE College in Cumbria.

2. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the post-16 sector at the moment?
At root, education policy, particularly post-16, has always been governed by the perceived level of need from government and big business to spend resources on producing a sufficiently well-educated workforce. An increasing reliance on a predominantly low-skill, low-wage economy, alongside a government looking to cut debt piled up during the pandemic, will inevitably mean the existing challenges of post-16 underfunding, coupled with a narrowing of the curriculum, will only get worse.
The NEU has pointed out that post-16 spending has been cut harder than any other sector. In July, the “School Funding in England” Report, published by the National Audit Office, confirmed that squeeze, finding that funding per student had fallen by 11.4% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2020-21. For staff, those cuts will continue to threaten further job losses, excessive workload and real terms pay cuts. HE and FE staff will also face similar challenges, alongside increasing casualisation.
These are challenges that must be fought through using our collective strength.

3. What are your thoughts on the government’s new T Level qualifications, and how do you think the NEU should respond to them?
The Government’s insistence on pushing ahead with T levels, while scrapping many applied general qualifications, is another example of education policy being imposed against the objections of post-16 educators.
As the NEU and others have warned, and as I have seen from my own FE teaching experience, specialised T levels risk being too inaccessible for many learners, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Without the ability to take other qualifications, such as BTECs, many students may struggle to succeed at T level, leaving them dropping out of courses without level 3 qualifications, further widening educational inequality.
The NEU needs to urgently join with other unions and concerned bodies, as well as producing lobbying materials for students, parents, and staff, in order to keep up the pressure on the Government to retain a much wider range of applied general qualifications. We need to make clear to Ministers that these are far from the “second rate qualifications” that he has insultingly suggested and that there is indeed a “real need” for them to remain.

4. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the academic and the vocational in the current post-16 system, and how if at all do you think this relationship ought to be reformed in future?
Historically, our education system has always been marred by a class divide between academic and vocational education. In contrast, the aim of trade unionists and socialists, like myself, has always been to counter that separation and, instead, to build a curriculum that helps to educate “fully developed human beings”.
As DGS, I would therefore fully support campaigns to enact NEU policy of “a reformed, unified, properly-funded system of 14-19 curriculum and qualifications which help bring an end to the notion that academic and technical learning pathways at 16 are an ‘either/or’ option.” We need a teacher-led review of the whole examination system which includes recommendations that encourage all young people to be taught both more traditionally ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ topics, rather than dividing students into separate pathways.
Of course, given the present role of the examination system in grading and sifting young people for university admissions and routes into employment, for successful implementation such a change also requires working to overcome the huge income inequality between different types of work – and for those not in permanent employment at all – within our society as a whole and for a society that values education in its own right.

5. For young people it can often feel as though there is a continuing pressure to go to university or be considered a ‘failure’. What are your thoughts about the impact of this on younger generations?
The policy of university expansion has certainly led to an increasing pressure on young people to seek a university place. Staff must resist any pressure to give inappropriate careers advice to our students and try and advise what is best for each individual.
Given the experience of many students of underfunded university courses, debt and poor learning conditions, not least during the Covid pandemic, more young people may start to look at other options. The question for them will be, whether they go to university or not, whether there will be properly paid jobs for them to work in. The trade union movement therefore also has to demand government investment in socially useful job creation.
Government policy may also change given the growing concern about the level of unpaid student debt (in itself an indictment of low graduate wages and job insecurity) and the unsustainability of the present model of university financing. More university courses will face cuts, particularly in subjects such as Arts and Humanities which aren’t considered to produce such tangible economic benefits. There will need to be a united campaign between university workers and students to demand high-quality fully-funded university education and a living grant.

6. What aspects of your own campaign platform do you think would make a material difference to education workers in the post-16 sector?
The key demands in my campaign platform are designed to unite all educators in a common struggle around the key issues we all face, not least on workplace health and safety, workload, pay and education funding. I am calling for the NEU to build workplace strength to win gains for our members through action but also to bring together members across sectors to make gains as a national union too. We need to learn the lesson of our achievement in January over Section 44 – when we put out a call for action unionwide – and forced Boris Johnson to step back over full school reopening. We need to be preparing immediately now to ballot union-wide to oppose the imposed pay freeze, with plans in the post-16 sector fully co-ordinated with those for other sectors.
I am also calling for the NEU to organise to win a new National Contract for all. Such a campaign would insist that post-16 staff had parity with their colleagues in other sectors but also that all staff, teaching and non-teaching, won improved pay and conditions together. To counter excessive workload, a new National Contract must end the open-ended requirement for teaching staff to work “such reasonable additional hours as may be needed”, as currently stated in both the STPCD and the ‘Red Book’, and replace it with a genuine limit on overall working time. That limit needs to be combined with workplace policies and staffing guarantees that ensure that preparation, assessment, and other additional tasks can genuinely be done in the contractual time available, instead of becoming unpaid overtime and yet more to be done in our evenings and weekends.
I have also made a commitment to accept only on a teacher's salary for carrying out the role of NEU DGS. I hope that demonstrates to post-16 educators, and beyond, that I am not standing in this election for personal gain, but solely because I want to help lead my Union against the attacks we all face from this Government.

7. Although you’re running for deputy general secretary of the NEU, this is obviously also a time when further and higher education workers are facing unprecedented attacks on pay and conditions, with redundancies and course closures rolling across the sector. Do you see these struggles as relevant to NEU members, and how do you think professional unity and solidarity can be built between education unions across the post-16 sector?
I don’t only believe that struggles across the FE and HE sectors are relevant to NEU members, I think it’s essential that we build trade union solidarity across all sectors of education against common attacks on our pay and conditions, and learners’ working conditions.

Many NEU and UCU branches have been engaged in a series of local disputes on common issues – including against job cuts, to defend health and safety, and to oppose attacks on trade union organisation. As NEU DGS, I would encourage practical solidarity between unions in dispute, such as donations to hardship funds and attending picket lines, rallies and demonstrations.
Above all, I would call for joint action wherever possible between UCU and NEU members. That certainly needs to be the case wherever a local dispute arises in any college where both unions are organised. But if we are to successfully defeat Government attacks on education and the public sector as a whole, including right now over pay, then at a local and national level we need to be urgently meeting together to co-ordinate a united response.

Niamh Sweeney

1. Tell us about your own experiences of post-16 education: what stands out to you in your memories of it?
I stayed on at my school for 6th Form and studied Politics, Economics and Geography A Levels. I don’t remember having a discussion about the possibility to going somewhere else or of studying a different type of qualification. I think my students are much more thoughtful in their decision making.
Having said that, I had fun. I had some excellent teachers and met my best friend Helen Murphy! Being in the 6th Form was about discovering new freedoms, putting the world to rights and finding my political voice. Mr Batty my politics teacher was passionate and engaging. If I am half the inspiration, he was to me, to my students I’m doing well.

2. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the post-16 sector at the moment?
There are certainly challenges. Without a doubt the biggest challenge has to be funding. Whether we are talking about Sixth Form Colleges or Further Education Colleges the funding level per student has not kept in line with inflation, does not reflect the true cost of delivering specialist high quality education and has meant that class sizes have risen, courses have been cut and pay levels have not kept pace with schools, which makes the profession less attractive to experts from industry.
Post 16 funding per student is still significantly lower than that given to 11-16 establishments and dramatically lower than other European countries. That combined with funding in FE being linked to outdated Ofsted grading, lagged funding so colleges don’t actually receive the funding when the student starts and complexities connected to funding level 2 programmes and VAT, leave college leaders in staggeringly difficult positions trying to balance the books rather than teach from them.
Mergers, amalgamations and acadamisation also threaten the identity of the sector and are in danger of narrowing student choice. For too long Post 16 education and training has been used by successive Governments as a bit of a play thing. They tinker around the edges and make grand announcements about skills and training, but they don’t really take the time to understand it, the professionals working in it or the students for whom it can be life changing. Money is thrown at advisory groups, special projects and corporate branding and then they don’t go anywhere. I am still cross at all the time and money wasted on the 14-19 Diploma.

3. What are your thoughts on the government’s new T Level qualifications, and how do you think the NEU should respond to them?
I have been sounding the klaxon about T Levels since they were first mooted. I know that there are NEU members delivering them, some of my colleagues have been involved in a work experience pilot for them, but I always come back to the same question. What is the point of them?
Gavin Williamson says he wants them to be a world beating ‘gold standard’ qualification. Just saying that, doesn’t make it so! I also don’t believe it is good enough for him to say there are too many Level 3 qualifications and the system is ‘too complex’. I have been teaching a range of vocational / technical / general applied qualifications for 20 years now and once you explain to a parent what they are, they grasp the concept very quickly and students just get it. I also think his line about those qualifications as being ‘poor quality’ and ‘less rigorous’ is offensive to the sector, profession and young people who complete them.
The expectation for students to complete 315 hours or 45 days work placement is aspirational at best. It’s all well and good for Gavin to say that Rolls Royce and British Aerospace are designing programmes of assessment, but the reality is we struggle finding employers to take our Health and Social Care students for 100 hours at the moment. Most work placements are found through familial connections or are provided by Pete’s Plumbers and Cool Kutz rather than large multi nationals. There is huge difficulty in finding work placements in rural areas, for those without ‘connections’ and there are the costs involved in travelling to work placement, the adjustments needed for students with SEND. All this threatens the ability of students to choose the course they are interested in or passionate about.
If the Government wants our Post 16 qualifications to be truly ‘gold standard’ for all young people then I don’t think they can just look at one area of qualifications. You can’t reform vocational qualifications and leave A Levels alone, especially if it’s just because you don’t understand them Gavin.
How can the NEU respond? Well, I think we have also got to stop the ‘othering’ of those students who take, and the members who teach vocational / technical or general applied qualifications. I’d like to see our press releases around results day reflect that actually the majority of post 16 students study a mixed economy of A Levels plus a Btec or general applied qualification.
We also need to be much more vocal in calling out the Government on how it reports on the successes of the T Level project. Where has the money gone? How many colleges are actually delivering them? What are the results? How many couldn’t be completed because of the work placement requirement? How is recruitment of students onto them for this September?

4. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the academic and the vocational in the current post-16 system, and how if at all do you think this relationship ought to be reformed in future?
Continuing from above – there is lots NEU members, particularly our leadership members can do to break down the barriers between academic and vocational qualifications. I worked at a school once that wouldn’t allow students with predicted high grades in their GCSEs study a Btec Level 2 as part of their programme of study. They were considered ‘too good’ for it, or it not good enough for them. Vocational and applied qualifications are often considered ‘easy’ and that simply isn’t true. A whole load of ‘lockdown’ haircuts prove just how difficult Level 1 or 2 hairdressing is and how much we should value those who complete the qualifications to distinction level.
We currently have an ‘academic’ education system policed by exams. We are in the top three in the world for rote learning. Students come to me at Post 16 and they are exhausted, have lost the love for learning and often don’t have the independent learning and studying skills we expect them to have. Vocational / technical and general applied qualifications, like the ones I teach in Criminology and Health and Social Care not only spark their interest and provide excellent stepping stones into the world of work or higher education, but they also develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, they tackle complex subject matter that help our young people become the active, global citizens we need them to be.

5. For young people it can often feel as though there is a continuing pressure to go to university or be considered a ‘failure’. What are your thoughts about the impact of this on younger generations?
I think there is often an assumption that that is what is expected. There is definitely some pressure from schools and parents that it is the ‘best route’, but I think young people are very open to different plans for their future. I always say ‘never, say never’ when a student says they don’t want to go to university. There are so many more options open to young people these days whether it be apprenticeships, work based training or apprenticeship degrees. Young people are keen to know what employers and higher education institutions can offer them. Good independent advice and guidance is vital here and the Government really should hold its head in shame at the lack of priority and funding this is given in schools and colleges. A student I taught six years ago just contacted me to say she had been accepted for a Nursing degree at University. She wasn’t ready at 18 and didn’t want to do it then. I am really proud that she went straight into health care employment and is now taking the decision to study further. It needs to be about the individual.

6. What aspects of your own campaign platform do you think would make a material difference to education workers in the post-16 sector?
I am basing my campaign on three intrinsically linked areas; workload, professional autonomy and accountability. As a full time teacher I expect to work hard and I know how ridiculously hard everyone else is working too. Our exam factory and punitive accountability system drives workload. We must address the excessive workload that means teachers and support staff are working more unpaid overtime than any other profession. As DGS I will work to ensure that Ofsted’s toxic hold over education is ended and they are replaced with a legitimate, profession led accountability system.
Our rep density is much stronger in the Post 16 sector and that means our workplace groups are much more likely to be able to organise to support each other and to win in the workplace for all employees. Teachers and support staff in FE and Sixth Form Colleges are often more confident in challenging the introduction of the ‘busy work’ that has no impact on teaching and learning, but members are reporting the creep of paperwork connected to observations and ‘mocksteds’ so we must organise to fight this collectively. In my own workplace we have worked hard to ensure that all members of staff have the flexibility to work from home if they want to. What started as part of our mitigations against Covid has been extended because it was clear to all that it was having a positive impact on workload management, staff wellbeing and life / work balance.
In my experience of working in both the school and post 16 sector I would say that the school sector has a lot to learn from us.

7. Although you’re running for deputy general secretary of the NEU, this is obviously also a time when further and higher education workers are facing unprecedented attacks on pay and conditions, with redundancies and course closures rolling across the sector. Do you see these struggles as relevant to NEU members, and how do you think professional unity and solidarity can be built between education unions across the post-16 sector?
Absolutely. We saw from the Sixth Form College strike action in 2019 / 20 that where we have strong rep groups and organised workplaces we can win. That doesn’t in any way take away from the hard work needed to carry out and sustain the action, but I think we have good lessons to learn from it. If we are to be able to make similar wins again and transfer those wins to schools and FE on issues such as a national contract, funding, pay and assessment we need to build on our relationships with other unions.
We know from previous ballots and the Sixth Form College action that we are more successful in workplaces with reps, that has to be our starting point. However we will only be able to make larger gains if we build professional unity with other unions and stakeholder groups. We are beginning to do this more successfully with the SFCA but have work still to do with UCU and the Association of Colleges to halt the attacks on working conditions in FE.
I have experience of working with sister unions and other stakeholder groups. I am prepared to make broad alliances with those who share the values of the objects of the NEU in order to promote a policy direction that has real impact on the working lives of all our members, and affects educational change for children and young people.


Each candidate has a website where readers can learn more about their campaigns:

Gawain Little: https://together4change.education
Martin Powell-Davies: https://martin4dgs.co.uk
Niamh Sweeney: https://www.niamhsweeney.online