FE Labyrinth

Documenting a journey through the labyrinth of further education - @FeLabyrinth on twitter - email FE-Labyrinth@mail.com

A lifetime of target setting

One rainy day in year nine I arrived a little late to form time and discovered that my teacher had arrived early and begun an activity with the class. This was highly unusual. He was one of those old-school useless-but-wonderful types. Form time for us was a loose twenty minutes in which we chatted to whoever was next in the alphabetic seating plan before lessons started. I know the best teachers and leaders around today would decry that twenty minutes as a horrible waste of time, but I can’t help feeling sorry for its loss. Not every moment of every day needed to be measured and accounted for. Form time now is a fraught affair of hurried uniform checks, maths and English revision, money management, British values and all the bits and pieces that get dropped into the curriculum because someone stands up in parliament and says “schools should be teaching this.” It was during form time of year nine that I forged one of my most enduring friendships swapping science fiction books with the boy next to me. On this particular morning though, there would be no talk of time travel, the ethics of meat eating or evolution. I arrived to find a sheet of paper on my desk with three empty boxes on it.

“What’s this, Sir?” I asked.

“You need to write targets, Colin”

“What?” I asked the boy next to me.

“Don’t know what he means either.” He muttered.

Having overheard us, our form tutor explained,

“You have to think about what you could do better and write that down, and at the end of the year you’ll evaluate it on the back.”

This was my first encounter with setting myself targets. I did not know that I would eventually learn to write them as quickly, absently and uselessly as tying a tie.

“What happens if we don’t achieve them?” My friend asked.

“Nothing.” Replied our form tutor, candidly.

“What happens if we do achieve them?”

“Nothing.”

See, I told you he was wonderful.

I wrote: 1. Improve my handwriting 2. Revise more 3. Daydream less. Although I got better at two (several years later in university) I never made much progress on the other two points. Luckily, I never had to complete my evaluation either. Those first targets went the same way as all the rest that followed them. A drawer somewhere, and then the bin when the drawer space was needed for someone else’s targets.

This was my first experience of a practice that is now so widespread we can barely imagine what life was like before people regularly articulated what they thought other people might want them to want, as a sort of professional ritual. I became adept at writing the twaddle that was deemed acceptable. “I will practice using the accusative in German. I will revise trigonometry. I will read more than just science fiction.” In other words, I will be in school. In the first semester of university I had to write ‘personal development targets’ which included making new friends and trying new activities (ie, being in university). In my first job as a mortgage complaints handler I set myself targets which, apparently, my pay progression depended on meeting. It later transpired that nobody cared about them and promotion depended on being able to do the job. When my boss realised that I was competent, he changed my targets to ensure that I had already met them.

When I went into teaching and started a PGCE I discovered that I would now have to inflict target setting on other people. Indeed, given the amount of lecture time dedicated to this topic (as opposed to, say, behaviour management) it seemed it would be a central aspect of my role... with a difference. This time they would be meaningful. If I believed that writing targets had previously been a complete waste of time, paper and human spirit, I was right! How foolish we all were, laughed the lecturers... How foolish we were not to have used ‘SMART’ targets! Those were the bad old days. The Dark Ages. Education had moved on. This was the decade of the smart phones, smart cookers, smart children’s toys and now SMART targets, too. SMART targets would make a real impact on our students’ lives. Why? Because they were – Specific. Manageable? Achievable (I know that’s right). Realistic, or recognisable? Timely timed something about time...”

Whatever.

I never remembered what all the letters stood for because they were obviously just five words chosen to make the acronym ‘SMART’ and in practice were no different from what I first experienced in year nine. You just had to write more and jump through more linguistic hoops. It was no longer enough to say “I will revise more.” You had to say “I will revise for 10 minutes longer each day over the next month by maximising the efficiency of my time management skills in a blah blah blah you get the idea...” Bonus points if you could shoehorn the word ‘synergise’ in.

Of course, there can be great value in writing down our personal priorities and clarifying our thoughts on what is important to us. When I started this job, I set myself some goals for the end of the year. I kept them in a word document on my desktop and regularly reminded myself what I thought mattered when admin was cluttering my day. It helped keep me focussed on a manageable set of priorities. A bit like targets are meant to do. But the difference between that and the guff I wrote in my official appraisal is that it was private. It was not written to tick someone’s box. And that makes all the difference. One of my goals was to make sure staff were teaching the full lesson rather than finishing early, which was common. To write that on a formal document would have been inviting disaster. Another was to change the culture around equipment and have the students bring their own calculator. That looked too trivial for SLT, but it’s a battle we’re still fighting and it matters on so many levels: personal responsibility, smooth running lessons, not to mention actual performance in the exam.

The problem with making people write targets, whether they are SMART targets, SMARTER targets (yes, they exist), SMARTAA, CLEAR or even PURE targets is precisely that we are making them do it and looking over their shoulder at what they write. No matter what acronyms we come up with, the practice is empty unless a person is doing it honestly for themselves. If we wanted them to get something out of it, we’d tell them to do it privately, but of course that cannot be tracked and ticked off.

So, who are targets written for if they are not written for the employee or student? In the private sector they are for HR, who need to create the appearance they are constantly adding value to employees. In education they are written for SLT and the governors. “Do all the students have SMART targets?” someone will ask in a meeting. If the reply is yes, those present feel reassured that important conversations are happening and students know what they are supposed to be doing. But what they have actually ensured is that good lesson time is wasted measuring (inaccurately) whether or not lesson time is being put to good use. It’s one of those things, like collecting meaningless predicted grades, that makes people feel in control of the unknown. A better use of their time would be simply walking into classrooms, talking to lecturers and students and seeing for themselves what is happening.

NOTE: Some people are more versed than I in the history of SMART targets. Sam Shepherd sent me a piece he wrote on it which I found very interesting (you can find it here: https://samuelshep.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/whats-so-smart-about-targets-arguments-against/).

Make Mine a Lilac One With Extra Time and a Prompter, Please   How would you like your exam served?  Blue?  Yellow?  A specific shade of green?  Perhaps you would like a room entirely to yourself, with an extra invigilator to warn you if you are drifting off... 

We recently hosted the November resits.  Hosted really is the right verb.  Every year the demand for exam concessions grows and we hire more invigilators, cancel more lessons to free up rooms and complete more paperwork to cater for the burgeoning demand of increasingly vague learning differences. 

Before I poke fun at these concessions, let me defend them for a small (perhaps tiny) minority of students.  The principle is that where a student’s ability is not demonstrable during the exam because of the nature of exam arrangements, key restrictions are relaxed to allow them to show their ability.  For example, an autistic student may be perfectly capable of completing simultaneous equations, but struggle to do so surrounded on all sides by hundreds of candidates shuffling and writing.  The problem here is not with their mathematical ability, but the way the environment plays to their vulnerabilities.  As such, it is reasonable to change their environment in order to more accurately test their mathematical ability. 

However, there is a fine but important line between this and simply giving people what they want because they find a subject hard.  I want to look at the three most common requests below and explain the problems they are creating.   

Extra Time (AKA – I have a human right to stare blankly at the exam paper for 20 minutes longer than everyone else) 

I would be fascinated to read a study of whether extra time actually results in better outcomes and I’d be willing to bet there may even be a negative impact on some candidates, especially in FE.  Overwhelmingly, the students granted extra time are those who struggle with the subject – but it is not always clear why one struggling student should have it and another not.  It seems enough that they present themselves to learner support, talk about finding a subject difficult and they come away with conditions as vague as “struggling with numeracy,” “taking longer to think about things,” or “requiring extra time to process ideas.”   

What is the difference between “struggling with numeracy,” and simply not being good at maths?  There is none.  It’s not like some people struggle with numeracy but show great promise at rearranging algebraic formulae.  But in the mind of a student who now believes they have a condition a great deal of harm has been done.  Some students (and their parents) put more effort into getting extra time than they do into actually learning the subject.  And having obtained the extra time, too often they believe that will be enough to get them through.  It never is.  Something which is supposed to help them offers instead a reason not to bother, and provides external (in their eyes professional) validation of their conviction that they “cannot do maths/English/whatever.”  When it comes to the exam itself, when many are faced with a paper they have not attended lessons or done any revision for, the extra time is usually spent staring into space. 

And then there is the paperwork.  Accompanying any exam concession is the “normal way of working” statement.  A student cannot have a concession in the exam if they do not normally have it in lessons.  But who does have extra time in lessons?  Most students are not keen on the idea, even when it is offered.  Of course, students all work at different rates, but it is often not the slowest workers we are told need extra time.  Early in the year I received complaints that members of my team were not playing ball.  Why won’t James provide a statement that Billy takes longer to complete work than other students?  I asked James and the answer was “because he doesn’t.”  We are under pressure to just lie.  Make it up.  Get something down on paper that will give Billy an advantage and pacify his parents.  Billy would have benefited most from putting extra time into learning the subject by attending catch up sessions, but he never did.  Our learning support team act as advocates on behalf of students, pushing to get them what they want, rather than gatekeepers professionally assessing who actually deserves a concession and what impact it will have on them.   

Irlen Syndrome and the Coloured Paper (AKA – I forgot my overlay again) 

Irlen Syndrome was first named (I avoid saying discovered) in 1983.  It would be interesting to examine why it has been on such an exponential rise over the previous ten years, having been relatively unheard of before then.  The relevant detail for schools is the theory that some individuals who struggle to read black text against a white background are able to read significantly better against a coloured background.  The research is divided.  Some studies find no measurable benefit to coloured paper, others find off-white backgrounds help a few people to read faster and others still find that everyone is slightly more comfortable reading against an off-white background.  I have not yet found any research to support the idea that some students need one colour and others another (if it exists, please do direct me to it).  Yet, in our learning support department the “test” for Irlen Syndrome amounts to no more than showing a student the same text against different backgrounds and asking them which one they prefer.  No one has a diagnosis from a doctor, in part because there is nothing physiological upon which a diagnosis can be made.  You may think this does not matter, that I am making a fuss and should just let them have their coloured exam scripts but there is a cost, especially as it becomes more common. 

As I wrote above, the exam concession must be their “normal way of working.”  This means once someone is assessed as “needing” lilac paper everything must be given to them in lilac.  In one of my classes last year I had to photocopy textbook pages onto three different colours of paper before every lesson.  Anything I anticipated using as extension work had to be ready on coloured paper, probably to be binned at the end of the lesson.  If I wanted to show something on the board spontaneously and could not change the background, I had to abandon it.  That would have been discrimination.  One day the print room was out of yellow and I gave my student a pink worksheet.  She told me that she “could not see it.”  You can imagine how I felt when I later caught her effortlessly reading black text off a white background on her mobile phone.  But to dispute such a “need,” even after seeing evidence to the contrary is to invite the accusation that one is at best failing to “put the students first” and at worst the sort of person who would kick Tiny Tim’s crutches out from underneath him.   

  The Separate Room – (AKA – I don’t have to go in there/do that lesson/answer that question because I’ve got anxiety) 

The final and most difficult thing for the exams office to work around is the number of requests for separate rooms.  These requests invariably come from the rapidly growing student population which suffers from anxiety (usually as diagnosed by college staff rather than a member of the medical profession).  Nothing changes a student’s behaviour more predictably than a learning difference statement that includes the word ‘anxiety.’  Students walk out of lessons because it “triggered their anxiety.”  They demand to change classes because the teacher “triggers their anxiety.”  One student was triggered by a Ghanaian teacher’s accent.  Some students skip lessons for a month because the very thought of the whole subject triggers their anxiety.  And of course, sitting in an exam hall triggers their anxiety.  For our recent exams we had to shut down lessons in over twenty classrooms for an entire week to house the students who could not cope with the main hall, and to provide them with invigilators.   

Let me be clear that I am aware of some instances in which the separate room really matters, such as the example I gave at the beginning.  But the line between needing and wanting is being pushed to the limit and the cost falls, ultimately, on students themselves.  It’s their peers’ lessons that will be cancelled because we need so many staff to invigilate.  And it’s they who will go into adult life with the belief that unpleasant situations can be avoided by simply telling people they have anxiety. 

My intention in talking about this is not to have a go at the students, but the adults (us) who are allowing this phenomenon to escalate.  It creates lots of unnecessary work and undermines what chance our students have to develop the resilience they will need in adult life.    

Honourable Mentions: 

The Prompter:  For students who need someone to remind them not to fall asleep.  It is quite embarrassing being the prompter for a student who clearly does not need help remembering they are in an exam.  I spoke to my “promptee” after the exam who said he thought I would have been helping him answer the questions.  

The Reader Pen:  For students who struggle with reading, you can now enter your English exam equipped with a special pen that reads text and plays it for you through headphones.  So, you don’t have to learn to read after all.  That is, if your college can afford it. 

My Favourite Learning Difference Statement of All Time:  Just this week, I received a message from learning support that one of our students, amongst other things “struggles with boredom and lack of interest.”  I feel his pain.  I may try that one on the quality team next time there is a marking scrutiny. 

“What is the impact of that?” A reflection on our Ofsted visit.

Last week we got the call.  I have been through a few Ofsted inspections, but this was my first as a middle manager.  I always wondered what happened in those meetings with the inspector that my head of department feared as much as we feared the classroom door opening.  They were spoken of in hushed tones and, whatever the result, someone was always crying afterwards.  Yet, I was convinced that it would be ok.  I had a lot to say about what we were doing, and was willing to talk honestly about some of the challenges. 

The meeting began with a discussion of the data.  We had obviously prepared for this, and started by showing that our achievement in maths and English was just above national average for the sector, a big improvement on the years before.  This was a mistake.  Were we so lacking in ambition, so complacent about low sector averages, that we were willing to accept such appalling success rates?   

“Well, no,” we replied.  We have all sorts of plans in action to improve things further, but for some years now we have been accustomed to the national average as a benchmark.  We made that comparison for them, not for us. 

“So why are you talking about national rates?”  She asked.  “This isn’t about other colleges, this is about you.” 

We were dumbfounded.  There was only one reason to talk about national averages.  There is only one reason anyone ever talks about national averages.  Ofsted.  It is Ofsted who started comparing everyone to the national average.  It was Ofsted who initiated a Sisyphean bid to make all schools better than the mean.  And so, for Ofsted, we prepared data making the comparisons we knew they would draw.  No one gave us the memo that said “stop doing that, it will now be used as evidence you lack aspiration.” 

We drew her attention to the value-added progress rate of our students, which is low but positive.  She appeared momentarily surprised that the sector as a whole has negative progress for maths.  Then she tried to tell us our data was wrong as negative progress was not possible.  I watched in amazement as my manager explained to her, as tactfully as possible, how the value-added figure was reached.  Flustered, she fell back on her previous insistence that it was “not good enough to be better than the sector, because the sector is so low.”  

We tried another tack and began showing her our plans for this year.  We led with a new assessment policy focussing on mastery of the basics rather than exam cramming.   

“What’s the impact of that?” She asked. 

“We’ve only been doing it for half a term.”  We replied “We’re at the stage of ensuring it’s implemented consistently.” 

“So, you’ve done no analysis of its impact?” 

“How would we analyse impact after half a term?” we asked. 

Silence 

“Well let’s look at the next policy.” She said, with an air of tiredness, exhaustion even, at so stupid a question. 

We introduced a new homework policy for maths.  “Impact” is the new buzzword I thought, and led with that.  I showed her that in the first half term almost 80% of students had done some homework.  Don’t compare this figure to what you’re used to in secondary.  Getting maths homework off drama students is about as easy as getting mathematicians to dance at a disco, and a lot of colleges have effectively given up.  This was a huge improvement for us and, I thought, a demonstrable impact.  She looked over her glasses at me and said with a smile, 

“So, what’s the impact of that?”  Her voice dripped with such derision that it was almost a rhetorical question. 

“Well,” I said, “What I am showing you is impact.  We have a new policy, we have done a lot of chasing up and engagement with homework has gone up dramatically.” 

“Yes,” she said, now removing her glasses, “but what is the impact of that?” 

“You mean, what is the impact of them doing homework?” I never thought I would have to explain to an Ofsted inspector why students doing homework was a good thing. 

She nodded with the smile of a patient teacher, whose weakest student is finally beginning to understand. 

“I hope the impact will be improved knowledge of maths and better results...” 

“So, you don't know if it’s had any impact at all.  That hasn’t been very successful has it?” 

She began to move on to another point, but I could not resist pushing her on this. 

“Sorry,” I said, “but just so I know for next time, how would you demonstrate that students doing homework has had an impact?  What would that evidence look like?” 

“Well...”  She had a similar look on her face to when my manager explained mean progress scores to her, “well...”  She thought a little longer, “Look, you don’t have to do anything in particular to show the evidence.  We’re not asking for folders of evidence.  If something is working your students will just be full of it,” once more in her stride, she threw her hands up in the air in a gleeful demonstration of a student being full of the joys of maths homework. 

“But why do you think the policy is not working?” 

“Well, it’s not working is it?” I could feel my colleague's irritation transferring itself from her to me as I pressed her. 

“Why is it not working?  I want to understand what you have seen that tells you it’s not working.” 

At this point she finally talked about the only observed maths lesson.  One maths lesson.  In a college which has at least 20 taking place every day.  And in that one maths lesson, she did not see or hear anyone talking about homework.  The teacher did not explicitly refer to it in her planning. So that was it, it wasn’t working.  Never mind that I could show her the actual homework.  Someone had to say “my, that homework I did last night really had an impact on my learning,” in front of her or it had not happened. 

The meeting went on in more or less the same vein.  Our principle was sanguine about it, and apparently did not much care what the inspector thought.  Her own theory was that she did not understand the sector, or the data, and compensated for it with aggression.  It meant a lot to have her support, and I can only imagine how we all would have felt if we had not. 

We came out ok.  We got a reasonable grade.  Other areas got a reasonable grade, too, some of which I know have serious flaws which went unnoticed.  In the end, she just said “yeah it’s all ok” without really analysing or understanding anything.  I got the impression she thought her job was to make us all as miserable as possible, before benignly telling us to carry on as before. 

This experience, and stories of similar experiences from colleagues, is why I cannot yet get excited about the latest noises coming from Ofsted.  Yes, they are saying all the right things.  They don’t want to see obsessive, useless data gathering.  They want to see workload being tackled.  They will no longer narrowly focus on outcomes.  When I listen to Amanda Spielman talk it sounds wonderful. 

The problem is that it won’t be Amanda Spielman who comes to inspect my workplace.  It will be someone else from Ofsted, who may or may not be interested in the latest debates.  Who may or may not have nodded off during their last CPD session.  Who may or may not have gone into the inspectorate to escape from their own woes in the classroom.  Of course, there are great inspectors, too.  But it’s luck of the draw whether you get one or not. 

It is why I am particularly worried about Ofsted looking for “integrity” in schools.  How will integrity be measured?  Will it be obvious?  It may be, to diligent, intelligent and experienced inspectors at the top of their game.  What about the other ones? It won't be long before mediocre schools are training their staff to show integrity and, sometimes, fooling mediocre inspectors.

The question Ofsted needs to ask itself about any new policies is not just “What will the impact of this on schools and colleges be?” but, “What will this look like when it is interpreted and applied by the least interested, least competent members of our team.”  Because somewhere, in someone’s workplace, it will be.

Behaviour in FE – The Problem with the Solution

Behaviour management is a huge topic. I don’t intend to write here about the basics which are, increasingly, widely agreed upon (at least among school leaders – I know this is a controversial area in the education community, particularly in universities, but I think school practice is moving steadily toward a more disciplined approach). I want to explore the question of whether these basic principles (consistent standards, swift sanctions, fairly applied) can be implemented in the current context of FE and, if so, why they are largely not.

I started teaching in a school with a vague, shabbily enforced behaviour policy that usually amounted to hanging sole responsibility around the teacher’s neck. It was an awful NQT and second year and I would have left the job had the school not suddenly, and radically, changed for the better. Despite Ofsted grading its behaviour as “good,” staff insistence to the contrary spurred SLT to address the issue. They created a new post and, finally, one person was responsible for ensuring consistency across the school. The appointee was dynamic, to say the least. He could have been a member of the Justice League. His superpower was being able to drop in to every year nine class across the whole school, every day. Midweek, he used to sleep on a crash mat in the sports hall because it was easier than going home. We all expected, and signed up, to a year battling to raise standards. However, the implementation of the new policy was so incisive, so uniform, that we saw results within a month. By Christmas of my third year it was like working in a different school, and from what I gather things have continued to improve.

This experience, along with reading the likes of Tom Bennett, Doug Lemov and Old Andrew (unsure of real name!), as well as the work of Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela, got me thinking in a completely different way about behaviour management. Whilst it’s undeniable that some teachers are naturals at class control and others less so, I believe almost all can teach effectively in a well-managed environment. The crux is, it needs both firm leadership from the top as well as all staff buying in and pulling their weight. And that’s where we come to vocational FE. I have heard a lot of people comment that the same principles should apply, “because people are people.” You’d think so, but colleges are not schools. There are some problems with policing clear boundaries, both at the classroom and college level. Here are some that I have encountered:

1) Consistency – Different courses have different expectations of their students. There are public service courses, for those joining the Police and armed forces, which demand nothing less than exemplary behaviour in all lessons. At the other end of the spectrum are programmes designed specifically for students who have not finished secondary school, for reasons you can imagine. The former would be kicked out over behaviour which the latter are congratulated for. “Well, they should all be held to the same high standards,” I hear you saying. I would have said that before working in FE. But it’s not that simple. One of the reasons colleges exist is to keep students who have failed everywhere else in education. Maybe they’ve been allowed to get away with murder for the last five years in school with low standards, and maybe that’s not right, but it’s happened. The college’s job is not to insist on such high standards in the first three weeks that the students we most need to reach think “screw this, I’ll just go on the dole and sell pot.” It is no longer compulsory, but they are not yet adults. Some students need the water to be brought slowly to boiling point, or they’ll jump out. Others need the heat from day one. Sometimes, these different groups will share a maths or English classroom. For teachers of such classes, unravelling a behaviour incident and dealing with each strand in a way that satisfies each department concerned becomes a Gordian Knot.

2) Get funded or fire someone – A member of my team told me a story from before my arrival. A student in his class had been disruptive and insulting all year. He followed college policy, involved parents, escalated (after much effort) to a meeting with the head of department and the last step (following an aggressive confrontation) should have been for the student to be removed from the course. The last step was a problem. Said student may have been a nightmare in maths, but was one module away from completing a construction course with distinction. Had he been removed, that department would have lost the funding. So, the issue was swept under the carpet. As you can imagine, my colleague’s enthusiasm for following the behaviour policy was somewhat diminished.

That’s a common experience, but before judging those heads too harshly, consider why they do it. Applying the ultimate sanction is like cutting off your nose to make a better learning environment for your face. If your department isn’t bringing the funding in, it is going to shrink, and the margins are not generous. A strict adherence to the college behaviour policy could see one of your team made redundant. What do you do? You can argue that principles should trump pragmatism here, but most people don’t think that way, and the system as it stands incentivises heads to turn a blind eye.

3) Time is the fire in which we burn – and it burns even more quickly in college. Imagine you ran a school which took in students from the whole surrounding region, each of whom had absorbed different routines and standards over a course of years from their previous establishments. How long would it take you to mould them into a cohesive student body, who understood what was expected of them and knew how to behave? Even if it took you no longer than a month, you would have lost 13% of your teaching time before the whole cycle started again, with new arrivals from outside and old students leaving. The turnover is rapid. Some stay for three years, some for three months. Some come in five days a week, some for a single afternoon. They are often educated across different sites. How do you create a culture in those conditions? I know my college does not have the answer. Perhaps another does.

Where all this leaves me, personally, is more or less where I was as an NQT. Of course, I’m not an NQT anymore, so it’s not that bad for me. I have enough experience under my belt to get by. But I know things could be better, and I really feel for new members of the team. We try to create a microcosm of our own in maths and English, but we are battling against all the problems I identify above. There are things we can do to help each other. We can separate the worst offenders, we can phone home, we can do a lot. But we don’t have the final say over anything and there is no common rulebook or ultimate authority to appeal to.

In an alternate universe, I can see a college making the following pitch to the government: Keep our funding locked, independent of the number of enrolments, for five years. Let us do what we need to, in order to make a great environment. Let us spend a year or two with lower student numbers because people get cheesed off at being told what to do. And then see if the college gets a new reputation. See if, after a few years, student numbers go right back up because now every parent within traveling distance wants their son or daughter to attend the college that ensures they can learn.

I don’t know for certain if that would happen, but it’s a moot point. No college could afford to take the risk under the current financial pressures.

Grouping for a smooth start in maths and English – what we did and why it all went to hell in a hand cart     In my first week as a maths teacher in FE, I was amazed at one thing above all else.  There were no registers.  At all.  Attendance to class in the first weeks (or months in some cases) was recorded by passing a piece of paper round and collecting a list of names.  These were then bundled up and handed to a fraught looking manager, who added them to a disordered pile that just screamed “never going to be looked at.”  What about safeguarding?  What about chasing non-attenders?  People shrugged.  This was how it was.  When the fire alarm went off one day in September I panicked, realising I did not know the procedure.  I dashed outside with my list of names, eager to find the spot where they were lining up.  I couldn’t find them anywhere.  I later discovered they had all gone to McDonalds.  The place to be for staff, upon hearing the fire alarm, was apparently Costa. 

About a month later, electronic registers magically appeared on my desktop.  I could not understand why this did not happen sooner.  When I took a job as a section manager, I resolved to ensure that all maths classes had electronic registers from day one.  Everyone laughed.   

Here is what I did (this paragraph may be of niche interest).  I downloaded from the college database at the end of enrolment week a list of all students and what courses they were on.  I ran a report of prior maths qualifications and then merged the two lists, eliminating anyone who had achieved a grade 4 or above.  We then asked departments to confirm what time they were sending each of their study programmes to English and maths lessons, and I drew up lists of who would be attending at what time and what they had already achieved.  I then filtered the students into the appropriate courses and sets, ensured we had enough rooms and teachers, then printed lists of who should be where on the first day.  This took an entire week of working in the evening after my children had gone to bed, but it was going to be worth it.  They wouldn’t be laughing on Monday when we had registers from day one. 

Except they were laughing (albeit good naturedly), because it all went to hell in a hand cart by second lesson.  The problem was, things changed fast.  One vocational area over-recruited and spilled out into two maths sessions.  One area realised they were understaffed when someone quit and had to merge two groups into a single slot.  Some students had lied (or forgotten) about their prior qualifications.  Construction had their placements changed and moved the days people were attending.  And when I stood up in front of 130 students who turned up for maths at second lesson and read the names on my list, about five were there.  I had no idea who the others were.  I ran around college that day pushing students into rooms like those train conductors in Tokyo with the white gloves, whose job it is to ensure that wherever the passengers end up, it is not lingering on the platform.  “Make a list of names,” I announced to the team, through gritted teeth, “and pass it to me at the end of the day.”  In other words, we were back at square one. 

I am still convinced it does not have to be like this.  After all, there was one success story to cheer me up.  First lesson, IT.  Everyone who came was on the list.  Within 10 minutes they were in their maths classrooms learning order of operations.  That was because IT stuck to the slot they committed to, and when things changed and they had to change the timetable, they prioritised keeping maths and English lessons as they were. 

Part of the problem is the way maths and English are seen within the business context of college.  As a department, it does not bring in money (for young learners).  It’s just something students have to do, and often don’t want to.  Even some of the vocational staff do not always see the point in it.  During those early few weeks, when funding will dictate whether the college keeps all its staff next year or not, nobody is that worried about what is happening in lessons that are seen as an adjucnt to the main programme.  It’s the complete reversal of what you come to expect in secondary school, where subjects like PE, RE and art complain of being treated as peripheral, and losing their lessons to maths and English “intervention.”  However, if the problem is going to be solved (and really, it must be), then change needs to be led from the top.  The whole college needs to appreciate that a smooth start in maths and English cannot happen unless everyone is working from the same timetable, and that this is worth trying to achieve.  After all, the students don’t go away thinking “that was a mess, but everything else has been well organised.”  The just think, “that was a mess.” 

Does tech have a role to play in FE? 

Years ago, near the end of term one as an NQT, I was worrying out loud in the staff room about my coming year nine lesson.  To give you some idea of why I was worried, my very first lesson with this particular group involved swearing, jumping across table tops and one child mummifying his entire head in a roll of Sellotape before running into the corridor to see what he could stick himself to.  In retrospect, this was a class which should never have been given to an NQT, but there it is.  Lumbered as I was with foolish ideas about behaviour management, I never quite got control of them, although I did manage to avoid a repeat of the mummification incident.  Every time their lesson approached, I felt sick.  I was talking about this in the staffroom, and a kind colleague suggested that I give myself a break from planning and poor behaviour.  “Have a laptop lesson,” he said, “Get them on Mymaths and say they can play the games on there if they finish all the work in time.”  It sounded like a great idea.  It wasn’t. 

Leaving aside the issue of whether there is educational value in such a lesson, my colleague was coming from the view of someone who controlled their class.  Perhaps in those circumstances it constituted a break.  For me though, the lesson degenerated into the patrolling of minimised screens containing online games, some of which were highly inappropriate. And that was after we spent fifteen minutes getting everyone online, swapping laptops out when they had a key missing or the wifi was broken or someone from year eleven had changed the keyboard language to Japanese for joke.  By the time I had taught for a few years in secondary school I had no interest in the laptop trolley.  Even when my classes were behaving themselves it seemed at best like a waste of time.  It never worked as a form of homework either, as the excuse of limited internet access was too easy to use.  And, for some children, it was a reason rather than an excuse. 

However, despite my instinctive distrust of edutech, I find myself increasingly interested in its potential application in FE (although not in the form of initial assessments, as anyone who read my last blog will be aware).  This year I am experimenting with a new software platform to encourage our students to do some work outside of the classroom.  If it goes well I’ll write more about it and specify which platform I’m using, and I am optimistic so far.  But why should it be different in FE?  I often hear people say that “people are people,” so the same principles must apply.  I think the context of FE dramatically changes some of the principles.  Many of our students have large gaps in their timetable when they are not in lessons but are hanging around college.  We have a huge library full of computer rooms.  They don’t need to come from a wealthy family with more than one computer at home and high-speed internet access to do work on a website.  They often want to do extra work outside of lessons but don’t know how to go about it.  They come and collect past papers, but when they find they have half an hour to spare can’t remember where they put it.  Or they come for extra work and when they try to do it, get stuck and don’t move on.  Or they buy a revision guide and just read it without practising, unaware that is an exercise with almost no value.  The great advantage of them having just one URL to go to, an easy username and password, and a simple task to continue with, is that it removes from the process the decision making of what to study next and how to revise.  Just log in, on your phone, in the library, wherever, and do the next unit.  The keen students have already done more work outside of lesson that they had this time last year. 

There is another point to make as well.  In school we spend five years slowly taking them through the whole curriculum.  In college we have eight months to cover two key stages of work and prepare them for an exam.  It is not enough time and the only way some of them will get through is by doing extra work independently.  “Independent work,” is a phrase that might set off alarm bells if you are a secondary teacher.  It’s the sort of thing terrible INSET days are made of – discussions about how to make our students become “independent learners in control of their own education.”  In FE, though, that is exactly what some of them want to be.  There is a world of difference between a thirteen year-old who wants to impress his mates by doing something even sillier than wrapping his head in Sellotape, and an eighteen year-old who wants to be a nurse and absolutely must pass his maths this year in order to progress.  I hope by giving tech tools to the latter, they really can become independent learners.  I’ll let you know how it goes! 

Initial Assessment – What is it good for?

At the beginning of each year, before lessons begin, we ferry our students in and out of the computer rooms to complete the initial assessment (IA). This is standard college procedure and, as with other college procedures, a business has grown around it. The tests are usually on one of two (expensive) software platforms, and ostensibly assess students’ prior learning so we can better attend to their specific educational needs. In fact, the one we are using this year even has a “learning styles” quiz. That is not the only problem. It’s the first week of college, and many students are still confused about where they are meant to be. They have had bad experiences in English and maths in the past. They are unfamiliar with the website. The internet sometimes cuts and tests crash halfway through. Passwords don’t work and have to be reset. And when they finally get logged in, they are not in a frame of mind to make much of an effort.

The tests must range across all ability levels, so questions begin at the most basic and gradually increase in difficulty. When a student is repeatedly answering incorrectly, the program stops and a level is determined. As soon as one student realises you can finish the test early by getting it wrong, word spreads and a sudden, mass onset of dyscalculia sweeps the college. All this adds up to a completely unreliable result. Last year, students came to us with a grade D in GCSE only to be “assessed” as entry level 3. In the end, we stream students (as best we can) according to prior attainment in actual exams. Sometimes, a student dropped out completely and there are no data. Here we assume the worst and move them up quickly if needs be. Of course, teachers do need to assess their students' starting points, but this comes later, through written exams in a calm environment, once classes are settled. The data collected by the initial assessments sit in a folder on the shared drive, never to be used.

Why bother with the IA then? The answer lies in conditions of funding. The government requires that every young learner who has not yet passed English and maths be required to continue studying it. I agree with that. They also want colleges to make progress with these students, not just process them through an easy functional skills course when they could be doing GCSE. This seems reasonable. They don’t, however, trust colleges to make a sensible judgement about which course a student should be on, hence the requirement to do a standard IA as evidence.

There are no paper tests that range from entry level right up to higher GCSE. If we wanted to use paper tests as a basis for streaming and choosing qualification levels, we would have to give each student a number of different papers, which would all need to be marked before the start of teaching. Some colleges have over 1000 students sitting English and maths. It is not possible. And that leads us to the situation described at the beginning. In order to manage the requirement, colleges pay hefty subscription fees for a piece of software they will use precisely once in the year, and derive absolutely no benefit from. But it ticks the box. If Ofsted ask for our IA results, we can show them. They always demonstrate that students are studying to a higher level than when they came to us, because the initial assessments invariably return terrible results. So, the system works. Students spend an hour logging into a website and absentmindedly clicking “next question” until they are released to the canteen. Lecturers pace up and down computer rooms muttering profanities under their breath and going red in the face as they wait for tech support. Ofsted report that all students in the college are starting at the appropriate level. The software companies who make these platforms pass go and collect £200 (or rather, several thousand).

In its fear of feckless lecturers wasting able students’ time, the DfE imposes a rule that costs thousands of pounds and wastes everybody’s first week of lessons. Even if we grant that the fear of “under teaching” is reasonable, these tests do not prevent it, because they grade far below students’ actual ability. Personally, I think it’s high time we threw them out, but who knows, perhaps there are professionals out there who have a more positive experience. If so, I would love to hear about it!

Next on my list of thoughts to set down in writing – where I think tech does have a role to play in FE.

The (Organised) Chaos of Enrolment Week   It’s that time of year.  If you are new to FE, you will be wondering what on Earth is going on.  People are queuing out of every door to get forms filled in so they can be stamped by someone else and then swallowed by a scanner and converted into a student badge before their bewildered eyes. Innumerable new colleagues are running past you waving piles of sheets with names like “CA1R” and “FR2D” and asking which ones you need.  You haven’t got a clue.   

I remember my first enrolment day.  I spent the morning with a soon-to-retire maths lecturer who appeared to double as a kind of human search engine, fielding questions from prospective students and staff, like a “siri” or “cortana” that actually worked.    “Alex, when are the English exams?” “22nd May, 1st and 6th of June” 

“Alex, where do they go for the cabin crew course?” “Second floor, west block, room 231” 

“Alex, what’s the code for non-regulated 20 hours community maths?” “MATXL18B2” 

“Alex, how many learning hours is the entry level English course?” “46” 

I stuck close to Alex.  There was nothing he did not know about the vast bureaucratic machine that swung into action during enrolment week, and his knowledge of the actual courses on offer was enviable too.  His gallows humour and sardonic manner were easily mistaken for general negativity, but that was not the full picture.  He himself had come into teaching through an unusual route, having been first a plasterer, then an electrician, next an assessor and inspector, then a lecturer in electronics who substituted in the growing maths department, and finally a maths lecturer.  He understood how it all worked and he represented the best of FE.  He knew when someone deserved a second chance, and how to bend the rules to get them one if they fell outside the funding bracket.  He took the time to talk through options.  People came to him wanting to join the police and went away enrolled on animal care.  This was not because he did not listen to them, but because he made them actually think about what they were good at and what they wanted to do.  AND he was clear about the employment prospects for each course, for each individual. 

Alex was wonderful, but not really unique.  Most lecturers encourage a student to look elsewhere if they think a particular course is unsuitable for them, and part of the job is accumulating knowledge about other departments.  Increasingly, though, the pressure is on to get the numbers up.  No head of faculty wants to tell two of their staff they are out of a job, but that’s the reality if not enough students enrol on a course.  So, with funding getting tighter, more students are enrolled on a programme that will not clearly lead them to employment.  Perhaps they are allowed to start a level one engineering course, with the knowledge they need English and maths to progress... but they have re-sat four times already and failed to grade.  Or perhaps they want to design computer games and enrol on programming and graphics.  That’s a lucrative area, but a relatively competitive one, and it is unlikely that a young person who has never taken an interest before reading the prospectus, who struggles with numeracy and literacy, is going to make it in that industry. 

It’s easy to understand why this happens.  The funding model incentivises it, and much credit is due to FE staff that the sector is not more cynical than it is.  It is easy employ high sounding arguments to justify enrolling someone on a course that could lead them nowhere.  We can talk about “giving them a chance.”  We can repeat the old chestnut, “You never know, Einstein only got a C in maths.”  Or people can even take the offensive with it “who are you to stop them pursuing their dream?”  It’s hard to respond to that accusation without sounding like the standard “evil” teacher in every Hollywood production that’s set in a school or university.  A good measure for whether the advice is appropriate might be – if they were your own child, would you see a future for them in that course? 

What the answer is in terms of policy, I am not sure.  Colleges do exist, partly, to give people another chance.  Last year we had a student who couch surfed from one friend’s house to the next, unable to secure a place to live from social services because her alcoholic mother had not officially kicked her out.  In spite of the emotional and physical turmoil of her life, she attended every day (often without a change of clothes) and came through with grade 4s in her resits and passed her childcare course.  A success story like that warms everyone’s heart and might convince you that anyone should be allowed to try anything.  Yet, for every student like her, there is another from a supportive background who drops out of one course after another, enrolling each September on something completely different.   

Perhaps the answer lies, not in a particular policy, but in the professional judgement of staff, especially those who have been doing this for years.  People like Alex get skilled at determining whether someone is killing time or discovering a new passion – it's not always obvious.  If we do want lecturers to use their judgement, though, we need to examine the pressure of funding.  It is much harder to send someone to another desk if your job depends on keeping them at yours

The Business of Business Planning

When I attended my first PGCE lecture, the head of programme offered us a warning.  “Teaching,” she said, “is no longer a vocation.  It is a business.”  It was a fair point.  After all, I had not left a lower paid job entirely out of the goodness of my heart.  Nevertheless, I became accustomed over the years to working with people who valued what they did for its own sake, and being managed by leaders who had spent years in the classroom and still felt affection for it.  Whether I worked in a local authority school, an academy or a faith school, I understood what everyone else’s job was, and they understood mine.  When I moved to a new school, I used to observe with interest what I thought of as the “teaching high watermark.”  That is: the least senior position at which teaching no longer occurs, even for cover. 

In my first school, everyone except the head and deputy had timetabled classes.  When that school went through a radical transformation (for the better), even the head picked up half an hour a day.  When I came to college, one of the first things I noticed was how low that watermark was.  It stops not far above the position of lecturer.  There are layers upon layers of managers who do not set foot in a classroom all year, and whole departments that have nothing to do with teaching.  In the upper strata they have almost no contact with students, or even lecturers.  At the very top sits, not a head teacher, but a “CEO.” Three months after joining the college, one member of my team did not yet know who this was.  I have never seen such clear blue water between teaching staff and a leadership team.   I am told by colleagues who have worked elsewhere that this is common.

Before looking at why I think this has happened, let me outline one reason this distance between teachers and leaders is a problem, although there are many.  Anyone who has attended an education conference will be able to visualise the following scene.  A funky looking expert, with glasses from the Matrix and a beard from Lord of the Rings takes the podium for his slot.  He extols a system of marking that involves group discussion, two pen colours, a box of stamps and an iPhone app.  It will empower your learners and motivate them, he says... IF it is applied properly. Whilst he talks, you wonder how to apply this properly with your sports class, right after they come in from a gym session.  What happens when the internet goes down?  What happens when they lose their pens and highlighter?  How long will this take?  That the speaker is intelligent and well-intentioned (and probably good company on a pub crawl) are not in doubt.  But years of comfortable inexperience stand between his ideas and the smell of twenty-five bodies packed into a hot room at the end of June.  Teaching a class acts as a sanity check against policies which are harmful, or simply a waste of time.  Those who teach regularly, seldom insist that every lesson needs to have a written plan.  Those who do not teach have a much harder time distinguishing between good pedagogical advice and passing fads, and if they are the decision makers in their schools and colleges, disenchantment and cynicism can set in. 

Now, it would be both lazy and unfair to claim that senior leaders are not working hard.  That is far from the truth.  My immediate line manager (who is just at the edge of the teaching watermark), works constantly through the evenings and the weekend.  Other managers at her level are under the same pressure, and most of them are willing to step in and do cover when necessary (although this is unheard of at the next level up).  I assume the managers above her are busy also.  However, “What exactly are they doing?” is a common question among new recruits, particularly those from secondary school, accustomed to seeing their head teacher and deputies on the corridors and in the classroom, keeping in touch with staff on the ground and working with them on behaviour and culture setting. 

So what exactly are they doing?  The answer seems to be:  business planning.  Colleges are businesses.  In fact, since 1992, they have been corporations.  The government funding model, which attempts to imitate free market conditions, generates an enormous amount of bureaucracy.  Teams must be employed and managed to handle this.  They must look for loopholes.  They must work with local businesses.  They must look for every opportunity to leverage money out of their premises.  They must keep an eye on their competitors, more so than schools.  Advertising needs attention.  In my previous school, the “marketing,” was handled by an old geography teacher who enjoyed photography – in college the marketing department employs as many staff as the engineering team.  All this results in a slick outward appearance, and that is necessary in this sector, but what is being missed? 

I won’t solely blame senior leadership teams – I think it has much to do with how colleges are funded and the sector managed.  The pressures to maintain a cash flow are real and it is no wonder they see that as their primary responsibility.  However, whilst recognising the time demands that SLT face, I would suggest popping the following activities (commonplace in schools) into the business plan.    – Take ten minutes in the morning to meet and greet students and staff.  - Spend an hour (or more!) a week walking round the college and dropping in to lessons. Ask lecturers, secretaries and caretakers how things are going. If this is a business, teaching is the product, and shouldn't the CEO want to see the finished product? - Use a CPD day to sit down with working committees of teaching staff.  Consult your own in-house experts.  Given a chance to voice their views and understanding, they may impress you.

Perhaps these practices are commonplace in other institutions.  Where this is so, I expect they are successful colleges and I would be interested to hear about them.  Even if FE is a business, it should be the business of education, not the business of business planning. 

Teachers versus lecturers 

Let’s start with a positive... sort of.  Every teacher who moves from secondary to FE breathes an immediate sigh of relief as the burden of marking, administration and record keeping is suddenly and dramatically lightened.  In fact, teaching staff in colleges are frequently referred to as “lecturers,” rather than “teachers.”  My own quality of life certainly improved.  I was able to spend Sundays and weekday evenings with my family – something I only really experienced during the holidays whilst in secondary school. 

Another crucial difference is that personal responsibility is thrust directly onto the students.  There is no break duty, no form time, no equipment and uniform checks.  All these small, extra responsibilities that eat into a teacher’s time vanished when I arrived in FE, and it was suddenly possible to make a cup of coffee between lessons, and drink it while it was still hot.  In fact (and this may seem fantastical to teachers in school), it is even possible to leave the building, nip down to costa, and buy a drink! 

The image that I have created is no doubt an appealing one, but of course, it is not so simple.  Days are longer in most colleges (9 to 5), there are fewer holidays (more on that strange setup another time), and the pay is often significantly lower, for “lecturers,” at least (again, more on this in the future). 

There is one more downside to the “lecturer” approach, and it’s a big one, mainly for the students.  They are not really adults yet.  They often drop out of compulsory subjects like maths and English, and when they do, they are not always chased up about it.  Many college lecturers do not see it as part of their job to contact parents, and shabby attendance and effort can sometimes be left unchallenged until it is too late.  Many staff, of course, are conscientious, and do their best, but are failed by the absence of rigorous, consistent college policies.  There is a reason for the absence of such policies, and I will come to that in my next post.