Words, don’t come easy to me

Scissors; gauge; carburettor; dermatology; physiology; wrench; sous chef; concrete; maintenance; nutrition...”

Recently, a vocational teacher sent our English department an email, inviting us to improve student vocabulary by way of a spelling test of assorted Plumbing terms.

After wondering how the Sports, Catering, Health and Social care, Media make-up or Public Services students would manage with Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, I politely thanked him and blocked further correspondence.


Acrlontirile Butadadin Sttyr…Streyl..some LEGO.

Re-sits, the subject surely no one wants to deliver. I’ve been doing it a few years now (before the Wolf Review recommended the re-sit as policy) and see trends among students who just ‘turn-up’. They arrive to a classroom from a workshop, a sports field, a salon studio. I’ve made the mistake in the past of thinking those students generally aint with it, but give them a acrontlierile butedine styragfome pipe and they know their stuff. They just loathe Steinbeck. (And so might I, if I’d done it once, didn’t see the point and then had to do it again…and again). How far would I get in a lesson on hydrogen peroxide hair dyeing?

Hattie has written that retaining students (i.e. holding them back a year, which is similar to the re-sit culture), has devestating effects on students staying in school long-term: “It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative” (99: 2013). We’ve made it policy – and the stats show that success rates are low (41% nationally). My question is why the college re-sit has to replicate the school GCSE? Why can’t it take a different form?

Differentiation is always a challenge in teaching; in FE you can add ‘vocational differentiation’ to ability, background, age, gender, etc. How to make it relevant to disinterested students (who may have struggled in schools) in the first place, let alone how to differentiate to learners whose focus on training is (rightly) sharpened to their vocational specialism is explicitly a problem of FE. Sometimes there are opportunities for ‘vocational differentiation’; sometimes you have to just crack on with the curriculum and hope the materials are meaningful and the students remain open-minded.

A pretty damning verdict came in from OFSTED on the ability of FE colleges to provide English and Maths this week. It says: (52: 2015)

 “In the weaker providers, attendance and punctuality in English and mathematics classes was a common problem. It is unsurprising that learners choose not to participate given the issues often raised about the quality of teaching in these providers. A typical report on an inadequate college described it in the following way: ‘teaching and learning in English and mathematics are poor, both in discrete lessons and when taught alongside learners’ main studies.’ “

This is a sad, and very general, indicment of our profession; having worked in 3 colleges in English departments (on the south coast, in London and in the Northwest), I see only fully committed, highly prepared professionals.

I often see student absences or persistent punctuality problems, literacy issues that staff aren’t always equipped to deal with, poor access to resources, a negligible attitude by other departments towards the re-sit course, and limited coherence at the point of Enrolment communicated to students about the value and importance of English and Maths. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not teaching staffs fault that English is the poor relative, it’s someone elses.

I’m being facetious (partly).

The OFTSED report hones it’s Sauraman eye-of-scorn on leadership in FE, but the Wolf Review only came out in 2012. This didn’t leave much time to prepare for an influx of students (one report puts the number in England of ‘failed to get a C at secondary level’ at 126,700 students in 2014), nor prepare departments and staff, before readying a damning verdict. I’m not saying the report’s verdict isn’t warranted, but it could take this fully into account before criticising provision.

I think it’s a violation to neglect somebody’s access to reading and writing; I know the values of literacy and literature (I’m an English teacher), I know there is social capital to be had from culture, but what really concerns me is the tension between vocational and re-sit. Within all my groups each and  every year, there is a very small minority who are intrinsically keen to get the qualification (or be switched on to it). The rest, at best, turn-up – often late. In brow-beating them about attendance, it can affect their attendance and attainment across college. A college shouldn’t be a place they reluctantly come to, especially if it’s one course they are coerced into doing (so the DoE can compete on the PISA tables).

I’m not naive to the complexities of this re-sit phenomenon – my PhD is based on it. At college, word is that we have students who (rarely) come to college just because their parents get tax credits for them to  be enrolled (and off the dole). So, it’s even more important, then, that colleges need to become more engaging, not less. I know this falls on teachers and I need to make my lessons compelling. Well, how about liberating English from the standard curriculum then and letting us innovate? Simply, the GCSE is not fit for purpose as a re-sit qualification in FE and, I believe, does more harm than good in terms of cross-college attainment. Bold. Alternatives?

  • Projects that improve digital literacy alongside traditional literacy;
  • Projects that self-determine what the student wants to research and communicate understanding of – the translation of which as objectives can then be negotiated between student and teacher;
  • Multimodal assessment methods rather than terminal exam assessment;
  • Duration of course based on initial assessments and students meeting leveled targets;
  • Activities linked to wider social contexts, it less formal, linked to the immediate social world outside, rather than archaic textual analysis (empirical evidence: my 16-19 year-old students seem to really struggle to make meaning of the world, currently, and are more vociferous in discussing and inquiring about it than in lists of language techniques).
  • Enrichment opportunites into the wider world to expand horizons: literacy activities.
  • Personalised links to subject vocational specialism and professional communities, incorporating work placements or shadowing, involving Process over Product, especially Procedural Knowledge.
  • Larger scale problem-based learning tasks

Embedding and accrediting literacy skills is as easy as ABZ. It doesn’t take Shakespeare or poetry analysis to improve literacy – and that is the end result.

OFSTED slams provision? There are pragmatic, alternative options to re-sits. Anything other than the one-size-fits-all George and Lennie ‘General Certificate’ approach. There’s so much room for literacy improvement to maneouvre with personalised learning and the Government can take an initiative on this.

I know these dashed blog thoughts are flawed; it’s a constant pity to me that English texts and language, which I’m so passionate about are not of interest to students, but English Level 2 can be contextualised in different forms and FE should reflect that. And if OFSTED think the stats are bad now, wait for Gove’s new syllabus to bite next year. Personally, I think getting kids of 16-19 to stay in college should be the main thing. The re-sit risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


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