When I was a kid certain things were not to my liking: liver, for one. Good god. That lasts to this day. It was usually dished up with onions under some dubious gravy, to disguise the grey organ of some unknown and unfortunate creature that once opened revealed a ventricle or five. Far too cultured a taste for my palette. Many times I’d get the ‘sit-at-the-table-’til-it’s-gone’ treatment, but I could play that game and I’d sit for hours doodling games and stories in my imagination in a battle of will against my poor Mum. Sometimes she’d return and find the plate clean. How my old spaniel Sheba ate well back then.
Other things became staple in adult life: brocolli, wholegrain bread, tofu. We develop culinary tastes, but not always.
I’ve been teaching this resit English for several years now, before it became policy. I’ve got quite good at the corner-cutting needed for the time-intensive course and having based my PhD research with the resit demographic in FE, I have some insight into students’ behaviours, attitudes and challenges. I am fairly effective at what I do and our college results far exceed the poor statistical success nationally in FE to reach the golden C of a pass. I’ll follow this post with others highlighting strategies and approaches, but this post is designed to describe the situations and challenges and call for a rethink.
Many FE teachers around the country report the same issues: attendance, resistance, a ‘turn-up’ attitude that doesn’t translate to actually being productive, low confidence and self-belief. Those last are paramount to improving both mindsets and behaviour and can see increased engagement, but it’s not easy. Sometimes even making a breakthrough and establishing a rapport with a school-leaving student is lost in subsequent lessons when attendance again diminishes.
And it’s not just resistant attitudes by capable students that makes it challenging; students with low-literacy levels, who may overcome the thresholds of antipathy outlined, but who are still unable to write a compound sentence clearly given the limited time to properly develop. It’s heart-breaking to observe the ‘types’ who are bright-eyed and polite, but whose self-esteem is shot through from years of failed schooling. Many have already been stigmatised and many just go through the motions.We risk compounding failure.
I suppose I’m describing typical experiences, not just associated with resits. The challenge to FE and its staff is clear: the headlines of low success in resits does little for the image of a sector already tarnished and chronically underfunded.
The damage of consolidating failure with bad practice is potentially disastrous to students. I would like to see a research project that tracks reasons for leaving FE, as I suspect the resit may contribute to an inability to retain students on vocational courses.
Sure, this is second-guessing things, but FE students are exceptional because they commonly have realities that school students don’t have: jobs, children, being carers to others, from low-income families and deprived areas: students at an age and significant crossroads in their lives. Migrant students. Homeless students. Adults in groups with 16 year olds. Students who work at the college. Students with emotional difficulties. Home-taught students. High-ability students. All clustered together – and we get to brand them all with a shiny General Certificate of Secondary Education in Level 2 literacy.
Colleges are supportive and inclusive environments – beacons of opportunity in socially deprived areas. I bet every college has those few characters in circular motion who seem to be there for years. Is it because they keep failing a year, keep coming back, are on “the wrong course” again, is it because the world outside is devoid of opportunities, or because they have nowhere else to go.
‘Reciting Donne will help’, some crony says, who knows nothing about struggle.
But they cannot read or see the point. They are in a deep-seated existental crisis.
‘They’ll have to learn to like liver. I ate it three times a day at Harrow.’
Despite best intentions, this menu doesn’t help where they are in the present moment. I’m not decrying literacy development. It’s clearly necessary and while I love literature, it’s only one aspect of how to improve standards. Literacy is everything, so why present it as a GCSE? To a selective few who happened to ‘fail’ it at school (for whatever reason)?
A familiar refrain in college corridors: “I’ve got to go to English/Maths.” Music to your ears, despite the compulsive modal verb, because – yes, they’re going to attend! While one goes off to the chippy or to smoke in the car park, the other one turns up, like a somnambulist, refusing to take off his coat or communicate.
Get them in, close the door, pick up from last week, except…you have half a dozen new students who have swerved the course since September. In February. You have 6-7 students with high levels of learning difficulties and no LSA funding because funding cuts means no money for vital support. You have students with anxiety who can’t speak publically. You have students who can’t afford a pen. You have students who plagiarise and believe it’s their work; students with anger management issues; students with authority issues, framed as teachers, because schooling humiliated them. You have students who are passionate and practical, innovative and creative and who excel in workshops, but who loathe the written word and classrooms and who refuse to lift a finger. You have three students determined to pass. You have one who is realistically capable. You have 13 weeks until the exam and your agency staff teacher just quit and your colleague is an NQT delivering one of the hardest courses going to students on the periphery of being NEET.
We must do everything we can to retain our students, because FE is cohesive to communities. While it may sound dramatic, the GCSE resit may detrimentally impact on that if students leave us because of it. It is an ineffective method of educational development where conventional contexts have failed.
Hattie shows the negation to success of retention (holding back a student for a year) – and not only success, but the long-term damage to self-esteem. While FE re-sitting is different to holding students back a year, I would claim a correlation is plausible. I am not suggesting for a second that we disregard students numeracy and literacy skills, but the re-sit policy needs to be reviewed – with empathy in mind. A dignified approach needs to be presented, for staff and students, in order that our colleges remain cherished places – not least for those scarred by schooling.
How about a three year literacy course for ALL FE students, so we don’t have the divisive turn in the corridor that reinforces ‘English’ with negativity? How about a personalised course, in shorter lesson units, which see grammatical instruction support credit-attained project-based learning approaches that can be accomplised in mutlimodal forms throughout a year and presented as portfolio? How about more freedom from timetables, so this doesn’t impact negatively on vocational courses? How about assessment not preciated on examination, but as formative and mastery (in keeping with proper literacy development and the mastery approaches of vocational training). How about aligning content less to the pallete of those who know, but give a wider choice of menu? How about we stop using words like ‘got to’, which is pejorative and demeaning.
‘I’m sorry Mrs Cameron, but Michael has not been attending his vocational classes. In order to continue doing Latin he has to complete Plumbing Level 2.’
‘But Michael doesn’t like lasagne, he only eats liver.’