Category Archives: vocational education

The Problem with Re-sits (and liver)

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.’

Poor Michael.


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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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On the FE Loyalty Card and Greggs the Baker

At the college summer conference, this year the staff were painted the grim picture of the future of FE and funding in stark detail. Realistic in tone (it certainly wasn’t your typical motivational or ‘have a stress-free, student-free summer and chill’ conference) it reinforced our awareness of the current crisis of FE. Perhaps it was to bump along those voluntary redundancies; if so, it worked. We’re a morally-devastated workforce, probably nationally as well as locally: continually challenged either economically (both as institutions and personnel) with insecurity or in terms of questions regarding our value.

We’re also dynamic problem-solvers, adaptive and resilient as a result.

One thing that I recall was the passively-aggressive threat by the consultant speaker (help ma Boab…), explaining the (near)future possibility of “other stakeholders” entering our space because the Tories do love competition. He suggested sixth forms, academies, UTCs and threw in Asda for good measure. Perhaps this competition is good for FE as it makes us sit up and wise up to the free market of education. I’m starting to see this in effect on linkedin.

Providers are starting to come in many shapes and forms and we have to consider the consequences for costs and staff. Greggs the “Baker” wants to deliver catering courses? They have the resources, they have the employability-skills knowledge, and they even have the golden egg of employment outcome. They can bid for our funding. And they will only look at profit margins, which will inevitably fall on staffing costs: ‘teachers want how much holiday? They want how much pay? They want to strike??’

How do we compete? This is the central question of our times in the public sector. In that tired discussion about teachers being replaced by technology, my doctorate supervisor said to me three years ago: ‘you have to make yourself redundant-proof’. He’s right, and one way of doing this is to think about what our courses and programmes offer that Asda and Chicken Cottage can’t.

Learning technologies play a huge part in this, because to compete we have to attract potential learners and offer them full, rounded educational experiences. Never mind the Area Based Reviews that may narrow our scope, a course in catering, for example, should offer transferable skill-sets that enable students to change careers or broaden their palettes. We should be informed by pedagogies that extend beyond the vocational; we are often dealing in FE with people from broken social contexts, at risk of slipping into awful circumstance. Colleges must offer students experience.

Equally (and a little contrarily to all this talk of loyalty), I sometimes tell younger staff coming in to the profession that it’s worthwhile considering a second career option – particularly as so many are on part-time contracts. Have something in back-up, or even as a side-line. Grim realities; grim austere times.

Other necessities for us as a sector and workforce:

  • Celebrate achievements – the best evidence of our impact
  • Make noise about the erosion of rights – keep the unions strong
  • Be innovative and enrichen our students’ lives, not just through main college courses but wherever possible
  • Management needs to recognise and secure an expert workforce, supporting and rewarding loyalty
  • Don’t let others define who we are and the value of what we do
  • Finally, don’t eat at Greggs (you know that anyway).

And what else? Well, somehow, we often seem to be accountable for the lack of employment opportunities students find for themselves. This is patently daft.  I would really like to see FE develop a network of cottage industries for small business. The hubs are there for this and instead of relying on there being jobs from big businesses, let’s encourage that mythical Tory innovation – you know, the one that comes from a place without economic privilege and sees innovation flourish through supportive communities.

So go local, reject Asda, support small businesses and work out how it can be done, because it’ll pay back loyalty points in the end.


Filed under FE, Teachers rights, vocational education