Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Moments that matter

One of my Functional Skills students, a young lad with a family history, and personal experiences that make you weep just to think about it, always disliked maths lessons.

The last few weeks though, he'd started to show some interest and compete to be first with the answer and I encouraged him as best I could in a class that sometimes resembles an angry, underfed, nicotine addicted zoo. He slowly let slip, in rare moments, that he'd never had any encouragement to do anything and it broke my heart to hear how he had rarely had Christmas presents and never a birthday cake.

Last week, he took his Functional Skills Level 1.

Today, I told him that he had passed and at 97% and I gave him a huge chocolate cake, with icing and sprinkles to celebrate.

The look on his face will stay with me forever.

Nothing can beat teaching when moments like that happen.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Not so functional skills

Few, if any of the Level 2 qualifications are really fit for purpose for all learners. GCSE is antiquated and barely accessible to many FE students now. Functional Skills, which nicely filled a gap has become a difficult qualification for those who are most in need.

Functional as the qualification is, many of our learners are not.

Many have never booked a holiday for four people, many live in families where no one has ever booked a holiday for four people – their life experiences are so far outside the happy, family orientated, reasonably affluent, middle class world of Functional Skills as to be alien.

The mathematical content is becoming more obscured in Ladybirdesque ‘Janet and John’ scenarios and narrative. Many are NEETS, learners from broken homes, those who live in hostels and have been shunted from school to PRU to ‘special education establishments’ before washing up in the offices of the learning providers or Entry level programmes at a college. This is not the fault of the training providers or colleges, who do everything they can to help them through the qualification but the qualification itself.

Functional Skills is written for a particular demographic and we are asking a significant number of students outside of that demographic, to inhabit an imaginary world they cannot begin to imagine in order to solve a mathematical problem. How many of us, at 16 had booked a family holiday, negotiated our own phone contract, purchased large amounts of food, a DJ, a village hall for a birthday celebration or took 7 friends with us on a trip to a zoo requiring a change of buses, trains, using a credit card etc.?

We asking these students to use life experiences they will not develop for many years, if at all, to solve mathematical problems they are have not yet experienced in their own lives. Often, this lack of experience is generational, particularly in areas of high and persistent unemployment.

Does this lack of life experience hinder them? I believe it does and that Functional Skills, whilst a great idea in principle, is letting down those who would benefit most from it.

Functional Skills should be far more employment related, not rooted in the fantasy of 'happy families'. Students need to learn skills that they can see directly relating to their employment hopes, good generic office skills, clear budgeting skills and interpersonal skills. 

For years the cry in GCSE classes has been 'when will I ever use Algebra', the cry now in FS classrooms is 'when will I ever need to book a holiday, no one in our family has been abroad, ever, can't afford it mate'.

If we are going to teach Functional Skills (and yes, we should), then let's make it relevant to those who will benefit most from achieving it.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

GCSE is not a 'one size fits all' qualification

During the #ukfechat conference, ‘Local Heroes’ at BSix College on Saturday 22nd October, talk turned to GCSE Maths and English.

Achieving a C or 4/5/6 as it will soon be known, is a serious issue. Paul Joyce, Deputy Director of FE and Skills for Ofsted, spoke eloquently at the conference and in a piece for the TES. At the end of the conference, we had an open session and I also spoke on the subject.

It is right, absolutely right, that we continue to raise standards of Maths and English attainment, they are essential skills for work and life, helping to prevent people from financial fraud, choosing the wrong deal and dealing with the increasing levels of information exchange we now face. Not for one second am I advocating a lesser or weaker qualification for Maths and English nor the abolition of the GCSE which is the right qualification for those who are not embarking on a vocational future.

However, GCSE Maths and English is not the right qualification for everyone.

The recent changes to Applied General and Tech Level qualifications, and the changes from QCF to NQF offered a missed opportunity to embed units focused on Maths and English. These units should be at equivalent level to a C or 4/5/6 and the students should pass them in order to demonstrate their mastery of Maths and English in their preferred subject and be mandatory in their main qualification.

Students who are unsure about Maths and English, who do not relate to specific Maths and English teaching are more motivated in their chosen subject to achieve, and find that using Maths and English makes more sense to them, in that subject. Embedding Maths and English is worthwhile but when the examinations are undertaken, they are not subject specific.

  • Theatre studies students, who do not understand geometry, are perfectly at ease calculating angles for stage lighting
  • H&SC students who struggle with maths are able to calculate baby formula ratios and drug dosage per kilo of body weight
  • Bricklaying students cope easily with tessellation when it is presented as laying a patio, calculating areas, perimeters and numbers in both metric and imperial measures
  • Students studying Animal Care or Agriculture calculate stocking densities of animals or drug doses for herds of animals. 

There are hundreds of examples.

We also need to ensure that teachers are properly supported to deliver this, through training and collaboration with Maths and English departments.

As a country, we want students who are well qualified and proficient in their chosen area of employment. It makes sense to embed units with Maths and English that is relevant to their work. If a general qualification is also required, then they can take Functional Skills too. For those who require a higher level of general maths, then perhaps the introduction of a L3 Functional Skills would reassure those who feel that the unit qualification would be insufficiently broad.

In the future, our students will be facing roles that do not even exist, such a Drone Pilots for delivery companies. They will need to be able to read, write and calculate efficiently and quickly. If we do not act now, we will be condemning a generation of students to not just failure at school but insufficient preparation for their future employment.

It is rare that the grassroots of FE stand up and demand to be heard, but we are doing so as we firmly believe that the current GCSE Maths and English resit policy lacks both imagination and common sense.

Give us the right qualifications for our students and their future before it is too late.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Old FE Week piece - A Watershed Year for FE

A piece I wrote for FE Week http://feweek.co.uk/2015/09/07/looking-ahead-to-a-watershed-year/

As the prospect of a new academic year stretching out ahead becomes a working reality for FE sector, Jayne Stigger considers what might be to come for teaching and lecturing staff in 2015/16.
FE & Skills providers are being sorely tested; no one doubts that but those who endlessly shout, tweet and holler the doom and gloom scenarios are missing the point.

Teaching/lecturing is challenging but staff need to seize this opportunity to develop both their learners and their own skills. Delivery using #FELTAG principles, working with local employers, giving learners the opportunity to develop maths and English knowledge in their subject specialism isn’t some new-fangled plan to make life more difficult for teaching staff; it is the future and we should already be doing it.

We should be building learner show-reels to demonstrate their competence to employers, crowdfunding opportunities for them like @hearnesque and #Scrawlmovie and developing our own skills if we don’t know how.

Yes, finances are getting tighter, classes may get bigger, courses may vanish from the curriculum, we may teach other things, some providers will merge and job losses may seem inevitable but they aren’t. This is the opportunity that FE staff should be taking advantage of; to really demonstrate just how valuable we are to the learners, our industries, country and its place in the wider, global market. It is the reactionary culture that needs to evolve.

The relentless push for more apprentices, better vocational education and training with maths and English for all, isn’t going away and the sooner the ‘traditional’ FE get on board with the new thinking, the smoother the transition will be.

UTCs, independent learning providers and National Colleges are stepping out of the wings and learning our lines. If FE wishes to continue to deliver all the courses it currently enjoys, then teaching staff must play our part in the development of even more effective vocational learning opportunities by adapting to the new rules and proving our worth.

We are ‘not like the brazen giant of Greek fame’, we are different. We are staff who are talented in our vocational specialisms, we take those who wish to learn a trade and develop their talent. We also take ‘your tired, your poor, your huddled masses’, and it is essential that we do, but to continue to provide that care and support, we must generate our own income streams, which requires multi-talented staff.

Teaching staff can do much to support this by changing the culture of a provider, with enthusiasm and positivity. If we constantly talk our positions down, why should anyone else value us?
The coming year will be the watershed for FE Staff; those who stand up and evolve into forward thinking, employment-focused delivery partners, those who facilitate skills development in all our learners will thrive
The coming year will be the watershed for FE Staff; those who stand up and evolve into forward thinking, employment focused delivery partners, those who facilitate skills development in all our learners will thrive. If they help develop independent income and secure partnerships, then they can still deliver A-levels, Access, Esol etc. I hope they do, for they are as needed by those the government doesn’t seem to see as clearly, as the favoured ones.

Governments aren’t always right and their hearing is very selective. This may be unfair, wrongheaded, short-sighted and ultimately destructive but it is the hand we are dealt. We should be working with employers, from choosing the units we deliver in a BTec, to relevant careers advice and great learner IAG, useful, logged work experience and staff training opportunities.

I urge all in FE to take the current political climate with a large pinch of salt. Governments come and go, their impact, for all their posturing, is only as great as we allow it to be. The time for standing on the edge, shouting at the water and urging it to recede is long past and those who do will drown.
The smart ones will develop their own training opportunities, build rafts, link together, use social media alongside local knowledge and industry to partner their ambitions and evolve so they can continue to offer courses to everyone who needs them, not just those who are caught in the current spotlight.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Haecceity: Grammar Schools

Every hour or so, Twitter becomes obsessed with the ‘thing’, not just the ‘thing’ but ‘this’, the ‘thisness’ of the ‘thing’. It becomes bigger than itself, tweets amplify and enhance the wrongness of this ‘thing’, the moral outrage that this ‘thing’ even exists is palpable.

My Twitter feed tells me that Grammar Schools are wrong. Not just wrong but evil, divisive, harmful, unfair, elitist ...

Yet they’re not.

Sending a talented singer or actress or dancer to Stage School isn’t wrong, it’s what they need to develop their talents. Coaching a child to run, swim, jump higher and faster, to represent our country isn’t wrong. Giving an academic child an academic education isn’t wrong either, it’s what they need to develop their talents. But somehow, it is deemed ‘wrong’.

Those who support this argument are observing it from the wrong end of the telescope. They are focusing their outrage on schools that are intent on providing children who have a talent for academia with a good education. And ‘this’ is deemed a bad thing.

Where is the outrage for a child with an innate talent for playing the violin having private music lessons, where is the outrage for a child who can run like the wind having tutoring, or coaching to develop their talent, where is the outrage when a child can paint or sing, or draw or swim or … pretty much excel at anything other than academia?

Is it right to put a child with oodles of vocational talent b­­ut without academic interest or ability into an environment that is not designed to develop their talents? Isn’t that as cruel as sending an academic child to a vocational centre which specialises in an education that they are not equipped for?

What is wrong, completely wrong, is that the alternative is dubbed ‘bog standard’ and implies we are sending our children to a comprehensive system that seems to be faili­­­ng to develop individual talents and particularly maths and English, in our children. Why are we not railing against this argument? Instead of banning Grammar Schools to remove this privilege, why isn't the comprehensive system being raised up to give every child a privileged education?

We should be demanding that all schools meet all our children’s needs. That all our schools are excellent, that vocational education is valued as highly as academic, that children with different needs, the disabled, the ethnic minorities, the disenfranchised, the whole spectrum of children have access to an education system that doesn’t fail them and gives them options. 

The problem isn’t with Grammar Schools; the problem is with:

Society, parents, the media and our own prejudice. There is a belief that a Grammar School gives someone a special gift that we can’t all have. It’s not fair we yell and if we can’t have it, nor can they. The politics of envy. If this is the way forward, then I will banish all of those who can sing (I can’t – so why should they?). Instead of taking it off the few, we should be extending it to the many. If you have two bars of chocolate and ten children, you don't leave eight out, or withhold it from all ten, you ensure that everyone gets a share.

Parents and employers who, to some extent, still believe the perception that vocational education is not as thorough an indication of ability as academic. The endless changes, the emphasis on apprenticeships, the qualifications that don't meet current, let alone future employment needs, the under-resourcing and endless media driven sensationalist headlines comparing us to others do little to help this.

The endless changes to qualifications, curricula, teaching methods, new types of school that have undermined education and their faith in it.We are not now comparing apples and pears but butterflies and chondrites. New is always promoted; quick, easy, shiny are the buzzwords, when it should be content and impact. Everything is counted, but little is really measured.

The values of society, which continues to secretly worship at the tweedy altar of academia (hence the awful mimicry of Apprenticeship Graduation ceremonies) whilst the government continues to display the dual agonies of lip service and contempt towards vocational education.

The continuous linking of Further Education and Skills, which no matter how much glue is applied, are not and never will be the same.

Failure to provide different types of education for different students in one good establishment. Equal but different. 

How can we change this? By stop messing about with education and qualifications, improve maths and English so that children are better prepared for college and life and stop making a new type of school every five minutes and allow the ones we have got to stabilize, develop and become even better. We can support our teachers, put faith in them and their abilities, give them proper resources, enable them to develop their teaching so children are prepared for life after sixteen. By providing stability in all things educational, allowing development through empiricism. Magpie education does not work.

As teachers, we teach the way the child understands. To develop new ways, new technologies (funding permitted) to enable them to understand, to modify our practice to develop their knowledge. If a child requires us to teach them academically, we do. If a child requires a vocational approach, we do that. We do what is best for the child.

As a society, we are obsessed with labels. A ‘Grammar School child’, a ‘sink estate child’, an ‘upper class child’, a ‘lower class child’. It is time that we stopped judging everyone by their label.  It is that compartmentalizing, the overall lack of excellence, for all children, everywhere, that is the problem not Grammar Schools.

It is time to stop being cutting off avenues for education, stop painting ourselves into a corner and ensure that we educate each child in the way that suits them best, even if that is a Grammar School or a Studio School or a Sports College or a Stage School.

p.s. I was a Grammar School brat. I passed exams. My parents refused to allow me to go to university (days of parental signature needed for a grant) because I was a girl. I went a bit wild, then learned good vocational skills at work (programming and systems analysis in the early 1980's). I put myself, as an adult, through the Open University and a PGCE to teach. Did the Grammar help me? I think it did, it showed me that there were options. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brexit: Racism and Education

The #Brexit vote fallout and awful racist behaviour that has been seen has many reasons, which can be put down to one thing.


Successive governments have reduced the value and range of education. They have removed Grammar Schools, reduced and restricted curriculum offers, driven teachers to tears, decimated Further Education Colleges and forced students to choose between penury or education.
Education has failed too many.
They are all at fault. Conservative, Labour, Liberals and multitudinous smaller parties. None have defended education with sufficient passion or commitment to enable it to educate our young and teach them that equality between people matters.

The data seems to show that the less involved, less educated, less enabled our people are, the more likely they are to blame the blameless. Those who come here and work hard, for themselves and their families. Those who try, those who want something better, those we should welcome.

The young seem to have not voted in sufficient numbers to have an impact. Too many are not sufficiently interested or engaged to make the effort to vote.

The young feel that they have no say.

The poor feel as if they have no say.

The disabled feel as if they have no say.

The Black and Ethnic Minorities feel as if they have no say.

The millions on benefits feel as if they have no say.

Those who depend on 4 different jobs and barely have the energy to feed coins into their electricity meter, feel as if they have no say.

Those who have a job, which depends on them not having a view, feel as if they have no say.

Those who do not think, have too much to say.

Some of those who did not get the vote they wanted have been vicious in their condemnation of others.

You may not like Grammar Schools, wide and differentiated curriculum, FE Colleges or university degrees that require thinking rather than practical work, but the broad education of students, the exposure to other ideas and cultures, tolerance and balance is essential to build a population with appreciation for others.

We have failed them all and now we reap what they have sown.
Education in the broadest sense, not in the narrow Orwellian straights of passes and fails of courses which are pointless in securing employment, is needed now, more than ever. Exposure to the widest range of thoughts and ideas, to aspire, to dream and to be tolerant of each other is needed to be a responsible citizen in this world.

Unlike Cameron, we cannot throw a hissy fit, and stomp off into the shadows of our Trust Fund, sulking that the electorate didn’t understand that we were supposed to do as we were told.

We must now deal with this, and build a future for us all, irrespective of colour, religion, origin, gender or sexual choice. We must now find a way for us to educate each other on our basic principles, points of view and integrate them into one new mandate of equality.

This casual, almost normalised hatred of anyone or anything that is different is deeply embedded in some of our countrymen. It is disgusting and before we can build a future together, we must stop it. We cannot be part of any community until we do.
We must ensure that our young are educated to value democracy and the importance of individual responsibility, of social cohesion and collective responsibility for the greater good. Above all, we must value each other, no matter who we are, what we are or where we come from.

Most of all, we must never, ever allow the lack of education to be such a shaming or defining characteristic of a nation.

Education, like a referendum is for life.