Sunday, 14 September 2014

Staff aparheid

Learning support assistants provide a valuable service yet they receive precious little thanks for it – and enough is enough.
Colleges are collaborative, supportive places. Teaching staff share resources, ideas and strategies, along with coffee and chocolate biscuits. They operate with bonhomie and improve their skills through supportive CPD and peer engagement. But although they are the visible face of learning, they are not the only ones responsible for it.

Further education colleges also employ learning support assistants (LSAs) to help the one in eight students with declared needs and the many more who require a helping hand. More than 80 per cent of LSAs are female and, amid the diverse atmosphere of further education colleges, more than 90 per cent are white. Qualified teachers make up about 7 per cent of the LSA workforce, with more than 40 per cent possessing a level 4 qualification. But nearly 12 per cent have no qualifications at all and 20 per cent have only a level 2 qualification. Most are part-time and paid hourly, have no year-on-year job security and are subject to redeployment at any moment.

Many have years of specialist experience assisting students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, mental health issues, impaired hearing or sight, emotional problems and more. LSAs’ responsibilities include note-taking, reading, enabling access to ICT, providing mobility and mealtime support, advocacy, helping learners on work experience and even covering classes for teaching staff.

And yet some colleges practise apartheid. LSAs in these institutions are not part of the teaching team, not part of the culture, not anywhere. Many don’t even have a staffroom to use, just a cupboard to hang their coat in.

In my experience, a number of staff are very reluctant even to allow LSAs into their classes. They find another “voice” distracting, as though it usurps their authority. Other lecturers find that sending the more disruptive students to the library with an LSA enables them to teach the rest of the class more comfortably. And so it might, but is that what the LSA is for?

Funding cuts over the past few years have pared staff numbers to the bone in many FE colleges, and it puts incredible pressure on the remainder when a member of teaching staff is absent. In the sepia-photograph years someone would always be available to take on a class but this is now unlikely, so the responsibility often falls to an LSA who is told to “keep them quiet”.

Frequently, lecturers do not know how to use LSAs effectively because CPD does not teach them how. Nor are LSAs given opportunities to develop their own skills. A few are paid for training but the majority are not and consequently do not attend, missing out on valuable learning and staff interaction. LSAs are often not released for training because of a lack of time or because of their low status. Their contracts usually end when the students leave and before the CPD begins. The career path for LSAs is a narrow one, and without a progression route they have little motivation to develop themselves. Yet they are often observed under similar conditions to teaching staff and graded accordingly.

Many lecturers admit they don’t have the confidence to direct support staff effectively. Many are confused about what “support” actually is – they simply stop interacting with a student when a support worker is present. This seems pretty unfair: LSAs are used to keep the “naughty ones” quiet, barely tolerated in some classes, excluded from training and development, poorly paid and have no career progression, and yet they are expected to stand in for lecturers at the drop of a hat.

Worlds apart

Discussions between teaching staff and LSAs outside the classroom are still rare. LSAs often go into classes without knowing what will be taught, what objectives are to be fulfilled, what practical work will take place or even what the course is.

Is FE like Downton Abbey, with lecturers and teaching staff on a higher tier than LSAs, who must be kept in their place? I can’t believe that is how anyone in the sector wishes it to be. We listen to students and request “stakeholder” views at every turn, yet a significant proportion of the staff are effectively treated as a stopgap.

Where is the equality in that? And what will be the impact if this keeps happening? Training all staff to reach the highest standards is surely a no-brainer. Despite the government’s best efforts, most colleges still insist on employing qualified staff to teach students, so why not extend that investment to the learning support team?

It is easy to talk to LSAs, to listen to them, to take a skills audit and match their strengths to relevant areas. It is simple to define their training needs, to include them in team meetings for the areas they work in and to value their insights. I’m incredulous that so many colleges don’t.

We present an image of collaborative harmony to the world, working in partnership with employers, parents, stakeholders and schools – pretty much anyone who comes our way, in fact. But we do not, it would seem, include a key part of our workforce, who find themselves marginalised and too fearful of losing their jobs to say so.

Building a qualified, experienced and truly collaborative workforce must be our first priority if we are to continue to enable all learners to achieve. And yes, that includes the LSAs.

Published in TES

Selling our learners short

Extra funding was intended to boost maths teaching in FE, but a topsy-turvy approach to using it could lead to a ruinous skills void.
Concerns about the sorry state of literacy and numeracy in England – from CBI surveys and Alison Wolf’s damning 2011 report, for example – have spurred the government and educationalists to push for improvements in further education. More qualified staff, better embedding of numeracy into vocational subjects and a greater emphasis on maths and English as career essentials are among the strategies.

To this end, funding has been allocated for the employment of new maths graduates as expert teachers, and many institutions have applied successfully for this extra cash. Although the money may have been conceived as a “golden hello” to encourage talented mathematicians into the teaching arena, in my experience many college leaders are using it to pay the salaries of non-specialist recruits, thus saving on their wage bill.

This is not the only way that colleges are dealing with the challenge of trying to meet the Wolf recommendations with reduced funding. To make timetables financially efficient, and to save on salaries, hundreds of unqualified staff are now teaching maths and English. The functional skills part of the course is often taught by vocational staff, who are well qualified in their own areas but have no experience of teaching maths.

Meanwhile, qualified staff find themselves redundant or “fractionalised” as their subject is broken up and distributed to others in order to save cash. And those others are now teaching subjects outside their comfort zones. Was this really the desired outcome of the drive for mathematical excellence? As with many strategies, it looks good on paper: move a few bodies around, plug the gaps and off we go. But the ramifications for learners and staff are ignored.

On the road to nowhere

Most colleges buck the Pareto principle when it comes to maths qualifications: 80 per cent of learners study functional skills and 20 per cent study GCSE, but that 80 per cent requires more than a 20 per cent investment. It may well be the case that staff costs are at a premium and funding at an all-time low (with the prospect of a further fall), but that does not justify what we are doing. Fewer and fewer learners are enrolled in GCSE maths and are instead signed up to a level 2 functional skills course – a “safer” qualification that can be taken as many times a year as necessary until they pass.

Is this the best option for students and their future employers? What happens when that learner wants to take an HND or a degree and needs to know Pythagoras’ theorem? Functional skills has no content that will allow for this: no Pythagoras, no trigonometry and no value in a huge range of careers, from healthcare and medicine to engineering and research.

Adults wishing to return to education are refused entry to GCSE maths and enrolled on stand-alone functional skills courses that they must pass before taking their course of choice, which they are paying for. Nineteen-year-olds who were never advised to retake their maths and English GCSEs and have progressed to level 3 cannot move on to the next course. They do not have the opportunity to obtain funding for retakes. They are cast adrift.

But financial needs must be met, so changes are instituted. Functional skills is allocated even fewer hours on the timetable – just one hour in some cases – and this is blamed on “more embedding” in vocational subjects and greater demands on vocational staff because of the new BTEC requirements. Is one hour a week enough, even when taught by an expert? No. And the outlook is worse for students taught by a non-expert.

Vocational staff are uneasy, too. They are concerned about their lack of expertise and their ability to help learners achieve. They fear the impact on their departmental results and the subsequent threat to their own careers. As many have noted, vocational maths in context is one thing but the exam has no single vocational focus, so it is the application of maths that is key. These staff do not have the expertise or confidence to enable students to absorb and then apply mathematical constructs in a variety of situations, much less an exam paper. They need training and support to take on these new challenges, if this is how it is to be.

FE colleges with poor finances are now in a bind. They must save money to survive but must also deliver learning, achievement and success to a high standard. The impact on their futures is clear: colleges without well-qualified maths and English teaching staff and good results are unlikely to thrive, leading to funding gaps, a lack of learners and reduced staff numbers. Poor and potentially dangerous choices are thus being made in the name of financial efficiency. FE colleges are once again prioritising their own survival over the needs of learners.

The requirement for students to achieve a level 2 qualification is the driver. But I fear that this journey, with a blindfolded man at the wheel, will lead only to a horrendous crash. We will again clash with or be run over by the funding juggernaut. Chased by a Wolf, we are behaving as sheep, blindly following the funding formula into a future skills void of our own making.

Published in TES

Maths; time for a new recipe


Gosh there’s a lot of ‘education’ on TV now; it’s almost as popular as baking/cooking shows, which in a way is what schools do. Take a wide range of raw ingredients, treat them to a series of processes and expose them to new experiences, and voila … a Victoria Sponge, the finished product.

Except, it isn’t. The ‘product’ is never finished.

The GCSE Victoria Sponge; that most English of sweet treats, so admired by governments, sprinkled with Govian icing sugar and the merest hint of Morgan vanilla, is then the basis for a global range of courses that are sweet, savoury, salty, sour and umami in FE. A menu of such complexity, Matthew Norman would faint with gastronomic gluttony.

Taster menu’s at L1; short, spicy fast food to develop your senses at L2, longer, more complex dishes to season the palate at L3, then delicious puddings at higher levels, each specialising in individual ingredients, developing and focussing on a core skill. FE would surely hold at least three Michelin Stars in the restaurant world.

The GCSE Maths Victoria Sponge, a fine and traditional recipe though it once was, is, whisper it, no longer fit for purpose in Maths. The two layers, Foundation and Higher, glued together with the sweet sourness of the Grade C raspberry jam centre, no longer works. Nor does its flashier cousin, the Functional Skill muffin. Dressed up as a more accessible, smaller bite of sweet achievement, it is actually just a less calorific, saccharin laden bun, decorated and sold as a multi-function, vocational catch-all, but scrape off the distracting toppings and underneath it’s still a flabby sponge.

Flabby sponges, no matter how well decorated are not the basis for a healthy diet. GCSE maths and Functional Skills are no longer the basis for a healthy, successful education.

Yes, basic mathematical skills will always be required; adding, multiplication, subtraction and division are sacrosanct but teaching these in isolation, crammed into a 34 week sugar-fest with only one final product allowed is senseless.

The application of maths, in a range of employment opportunities, fully embedded into vocational courses and included in the grading criteria is desperately needed and shamefully overdue. Maths as a pure subject should always be available for those who wish to pursue it but for the majority of vocational students, that isn’t their aim. They need maths, applicable to their lives and their subject specialism not academic purity, but they do need to be stretched, mathematically.

Treating maths as a punishment … ‘you can’t have any fun until you’ve done your maths’, reinforcing the stereotype of maths as a separate, additional burden on their learning, continues to damage both the reputation of the subject and the enthusiasm of the learner for a subject which is not  just fundamental to higher career aspirations but also to everyday living.

Following my tweet that only 7% achieve the ‘C’ raspberry, from the TES David Russell of the ETF asked me @fossa99 Always was huge issue. Now focus is on it. Massive challenge for the country to support FE sector in tackling this. Can we do it ?

Well, yes David, we can but that Victoria Sandwich and the Muffin, need to be broken down to their molecular level and then rebuilt, to suit the market we work in; the future.

It needs the input of vocational teachers and industry partners to identify the skills students will need to be effective in the workplace; as employees and future innovators.

It needs the input of maths teachers who have long and bitter experiences of watching those sponges deflate in the white heat of the post 16 exam oven.

It needs exam boards to work harder to develop mathematical fluency as gradable criteria in their Pass, Merit and Distinction ladders of success.

It needs mathematical competency built into Initial Teacher Training and PGCE’s.

It needs focussed, trackable, monitored Maths delivery of CPD for all teaching and educational support staff, which should be compulsory and a condition of Professional teaching status.

It needs a realistic, vocationally focussed framework of maths skills for apprenticeships, not 'bolt-on' qualifications.

It needs time. Thirty weeks (when term starts in September and exams in early June) of 2 or 3 hours a week, with a range of abilities stuffed into an end of day class cannot work. The replacement for the GCSE should be a two year, 16-18 stand-alone course, run alongside the vocational qualification and supplemented by the higher and examined maths content of vocational qualifications.

Most of all, it needs the will and the drive of those who represent FE to call a halt to the twenty one years of 7% achievement and in tandem with those of us who despair of the current situation, and we are legion, work together, quickly to put this shameful, abhorrent failure in the past and start preparing our learners for the futures they deserve.

Can we do it?