Anya Cook sits on UCU’s National Executive and Further Education committee and is Branch Secretary at Newcastle College where she is employed as Higher Education Mentor. Here she tells Transforming Lives why we should all rise up and support FE Fights Back, UCU’s national campaign on funding and pay.
“Never before have I had a student with so much passion for life and literature. If only I could say the same about you in French” wrote my teacher in my book.
My English teacher gave me a lifelong addiction to alliteration, taught me Pinter Pauses, the Oxford comma, onomatopaeia, introduced me to George Orwell and knew Milton was too sterile for me; she knew a piece of writing had to connect with my heart to have any meaning for me.
I can still feel the anticipation of waiting for my teacher to read my writing, the swollen pride in her approval, the rush of warmth when she threw back her head and laughed, the knot of nausea when her eyes told me I’d gone too far and the shame when she told me I had.
But that’s all good. Education is all about learning and growing, pushing boundaries, testing new ideas and limits. The classroom is where learning is safe to happen.
Reuniting with a friend last year who I hadn’t seen since college, over 25 years ago, we started again the group grunting, sibilant hissing, we were squelching and oozing in the trenches of war poetry; our reenactment ending in laughter, just as it did all those years ago.
Those students who came before, and those who came later, they will have their memories too.
I am one student out of hundreds, hundreds, who along with Macbeth’s “withered and wild” witches, learned their limits alongside the literary power of three.
And I remember all this because there was a connection. My teacher knew me and I knew her.
Marcus Aurelius said “Teachers are more to be honoured than parents; these only gave life, those the art of living well”.
Maybe the real art is in passing the baton, becoming a multiplier of self-belief, inducing a joy in learning, connecting and making memories.
“I will never forget the skills you have taught me”, “You’ve changed my life”, “I did it”, “You made me feel like a human being again”, “You’ve helped me change the way I think”, “I now have the confidence”, “I heard your voice telling me I could, and I knew I could”.
I know when a student who has attempted suicide twice and finds a peace in living, I have made a difference.
I know when a self-harming student learns a different coping strategy, I have made a difference.
I know when I raise the bar of expectation and the student achieves higher, I have made a difference.
I know when a student interrupts their cycle of negativity and strikes out positively, I have made a difference.
I know when a student, clinging to the wall, dripping in anxiety, leaves confident with coping strategies and a winning smile, I have made a difference.
And I know when students, who often face multiple barriers to education, achieve qualifications, progress to gainful employment, live meaningful lives in their communities, that Further Education colleges are sacrosanct.
So what is the cost?
This month’s report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies unveils the shameful underfunding of our colleges which are struggling to provide what they need to. Staff are demoralised, overworked and underpaid. They are knowingly not valued.
This government does not value further education nor the staff who were not included in this summer’s government-funded pay deal that saw school teachers’ salaries increase by up to 3.5%. College staff have seen their pay drop by 25% since 2009.
Further Education enables society to thrive. Colleges benefit the local economy, small business, reduce pressure on health and community services, impact positively on future generations, motivate, educate, engage, upskill the workforce, enable participation of marginalised groups, people can retrain, start again, build their lives.
Forget cost. What is the price of not having well-funded and resourced colleges which pay skilled, professional staff fairly?
Is Theresa May destined to haunt the corridors of Westminster, unable to wash from her hands the indelible blood of our young people’s futures?“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”.
Will Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, when he appears through the mist like the fabled Macbeth, succomb to the plans of his own Lady Macbeth? Or will he stand firm with UCU, calling for decent funding and a fair pay deal?