Thursday, 27 November 2014

Led by the nose

The FE Commissioner, Dr David Collins has recently reported on FE, not just those (the tiny 6%) who were Inadequate through finances or Ofsted, but on a number of other issues.

He warns that “Further education colleges will have to join forces with neighbouring education and training providers to protect expensive courses such as science and engineeringand Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said  … "Looking forward, the Commissioner is right to warn of the impact spending cuts are having in narrowing colleges’ curriculum and to raise a concern that more expensive courses, such as engineering, may not be sustainable in the future”

Dr Collins also said: “I can see why they are encouraging overseas students to come to their colleges, but I can’t honestly see why colleges should be setting up campuses in other countries. It shouldn’t divert you from your core business. If you are putting a significant amount of money into a venture you have got to be absolutely certain you are going to get top return and it’s not going to divert you from what’s going on back at the ranch. It’s difficult enough without having something that takes your eyes off the ball.”

Today, we hear that “the number of over-19s in further education fell 10.7% between 2012-13 and 2013-14” whilst “NIACE says the figures, published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, suggest an overall fall of 27.9% in the number of people aged 25 and over on these courses. Level four courses, which are pitched at degree level, were particularly badly hit with 34.2% fewer over-25s taking them in 2013-14 than the previous year, says the charity.”

FE can no longer afford to educate these adults, the adults won’t take out loans. How is our future workforce supposed to be developed? How long will it be before UTC’s expand their business to take on the lost 19+, or a ‘new’ provision is developed for them?
Yet this year an FE college spent £93,742 to 'rebrand' itself. Did it improve teaching, learning and student outcomes?
In the Guardian, the champion of UTC’s said Baker says. "After about 10 years, there will probably be 200 to 300." At the minimum, the initial costs will be £3m each.

 And in FE Week, Lord Adonis for the Labour Party and supported by Policy Network, will argue that the next government should “establish at least 100 University Technical Colleges by 2020 focused on growth areas of the economy.

 There are some simple (some may say too simple) conclusions to be drawn from this:

  • Money that Governments should be investing in FE is being diverted into UTC’s
  • FE is struggling financially and will be forced through financial penalties to stop delivering ‘expensive courses’ such as Engineering and become ‘smaller’
  • FE may have compromised its own future by investing abroad and dropping core provision when they should be concentrating on their core market; the UK, our learners and our futures

The 200 or 300 UTC’s at a now conservative estimate of £10 million (up from £3 million each in 2012) is not just going to blow a bigger hole in FE’s budget, it is our budget. In abandoning the aim to deliver good technical education to meet the country’s and student needs, we have inadvertently shot ourselves in the foot.

The FE that chases overseas markets, shuts down STEM provision and wishes to play with the major business conglomerates may have left it too late to be diverted off the ‘Yellow Brick road of profit’ and whilst some were off ‘on tour’ developing their reputation and not their core educational provision, the competition has crept up behind them and is ready to overtake. They have also opened to gate for all of FE to be tarred with the same brush and replaced by other provision.

 FE should not now be forced into developing UTC’s in partnership with Universities to deliver courses which were once their bread and butter provision. FE should not be in a position of trying to reclaim that which we once owned.

As someone who passionately believes in FE as a force for good and sees so much good practice in the vast majority of FE, I am as saddened as I am angry. FE is too precious to suffer such an ignominious fate.







Thursday, 20 November 2014

Have your say on our future

Ofsted are currently seeking our views on Inspections, details here

They are designing a new framework for the inspection of maintained schools, academies, further education and skills providers, non-association independent schools and registered early years settings.

To do this, they are seeking the widest possible range of views from those who have an interest in these different types of providers to ensure that the new inspection framework takes proper account of the needs and circumstances of all interested parties.

The closing date for the consultation is 5 December 2014..

If you work in FE you know there are many issues surrounding Inspections, Lesson Observations and Grading.

I know that as a scientist, I never again want to be observed and judged on my teaching by a Tap Dance teacher, who states "I know nothing about science, I hated it at school"

Fills you with confidence, doesn't it?

This is your chance, to have your say; don't waste it.

Good communications and consultation are central to the inspection process. All F.E. employees need to communicate and consult with Ofsted to exchange information across the sector.

F.E. is so diverse, no one organisation can understand or know what F.E. truly is, just by observation.

This is our opportunity to express our views and concerns, to those who can change the way Inspection are run and Lessons are observed.

But only if we tell them!

Opinions expressed now will shape our future, our careers, learning and teaching, student success and the development of F.E. as a constant presence in educational excellence.

If you #loveFE, don't waste this opportunity to shape the future. Or you won't have any right to complain when the new framework doesn't work for you.

Monday, 17 November 2014

36 Weeks Later

The introduction of Study Programmes with the formal instruction to include compulsory Maths and English is an ill-thought and rushed policy. Whilst its aim is true, it is a typical 'reaction' policy with little understanding of the issues and problems behind the headlines.

It is also true, as the Secret College Tutor recently wrote in the Guardian that

England lies 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 nations. And recent GCSE results in the further education sector do little to reassure concerns, with a mere 6.5% of learners achieving a grade C or above in English and 7% in maths.

That is a truly shocking and unacceptable level of achievement. But is it FE's fault? NO. This is a situation which has been allowed to fester and suppurate beneath the distracting push-pull sticking plaster of hype and spin.

In FE, we want all our students to achieve highest grades in their subjects, and that includes Maths and English, but to push through the edict that 'it MUST be achieved' without proper thought, preparation and planning condemns the students and staff to years of misery.

For what? Headlines and more FE bashing?

As Geoff Petty writes in the article comments "... Of hundreds of factors that influence achievement, students retaking a year they have failed (called 'retention' by researchers) is one of the very worst educational strategies known. Hattie calls it a 'disaster'. Students retaking a subject, or subjects, must be very similar to retaking a year. If a strategy has failed why repeat it exactly expecting a different outcome? So much for an evidence based approach. Geoff Petty author 'Evidence Based Teaching'."

It is almost too late to address the problem when students arrive in FE. This should be tackled much earlier in schools, and at age 14 and again at 16, with clear and effective Careers advice, together with an overhaul of the Qualifications offered by the Awarding Bodies and an overhaul of policies that constrain FE from delivering first class education to the students in a way that really meets their needs.

We need an overhaul of Funding and Policy Constraints in FE

The Programme of study is too blunt an instrument to deliver improvements in Maths. Funding cuts have forced FE to utilise every spare moment of a lecturers timetable. Inevitably, this has caused lecturers to teach subjects for which they are not qualified.

It has also reduced the amount of and quality of CPD and opportunities to up-skill and retain in new areas.

Identified issues with the Programme of Study
  • FE teachers work long and hard to try and help the students learn maths
  • Many of the people teaching English and maths in FE don’t have a grade C themselves and haven’t been properly trained to deliver these subjects
  • Funding cuts are causing Colleges to fill up timetables with other subjects to maximise efficiency

We need a complete overhaul of Qualifications

We need to work with the Awarding Bodies and ensure that the vocational qualifications have sufficient maths and English embedded into the Learning Criteria and Objectives, so it becomes an inherent part of the subject, not a bolt on. The Secret College Tutor writes:

Often they only come to the college to learn their trade and have little interest in studying a subject that has caused them so much stress and anxiety. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, 50% of people join a college without a grade C in English and maths. That is a lot of people who the state education system has let down or been unable to help.

That maybe true, but it doesn't mean they can't learn some form of Maths and more importantly, learn how to apply it to their selected trade. Without maths they would be unemployable:

Bricklayers use maths to measure and weigh, they use angles, temperature, mass, estimation and a raft of other mathematical topics, up to any including Trigonometry and Pythagoras. They can use tessellations for laying patio slabs.

Child Care students use maths in the assessment of the health of a child, (measurement), gm or ml of medicine per Kg of baby weight, same with Health and Social Care students.

Animal Care students need to understand stocking density of livestock per acre or hectare, medicine or additives for animal feed.

Equine students can use Pi to work out lunging circles for horses in dressage, calculating heights of jumps, strides between jumps

Mechanics and Engineering students are overloaded with opportunities to use maths, so are IT students, starting with basic Binary Code of 010101 and conversions to Hexadecimal, screen sizes for programming, disc and memory size - thousands of opportunities.

Vocational teachers teach these skills without naming it 'maths', but when the students take 'maths', they take qualifications that are generic, without any subject association.

Why so many? Is finding and funding the right qualification for your learners a bit like the old sleight of hand game of 'Find the Lady'? GCSE is a pointless qualification and not fit for purpose, nor will the new changes of grading and content be any more suitable.

We need to review Maths Qualifications and overhaul them, in a way that works for FE and the learners, not the Government or the Awarding Bodies. We understand all too well the importance of Maths and how limiting it is not to have that important knowledge, but does it have to be a separate qualification?

We need one qualification that measures Maths achievement. It could be a form of Applied Maths at Entry 1, 2 and 3 and at L1 and L2 that allows students to take a maths qualification that is tailored to their subject. If we already have 297 variants, surely they could be stripped back to cover the main sector areas of FE and one additional paper that is generic for those who do not yet have a speciality or wish to demonstrate proficiency in maths for University, without too much difficulty?

We need to build maths and English into the Vocational Qualifications and make sure that they are mandatory Learning Objectives.

Students need exceptional Careers Advice

We need a review of how Maths is taught in Schools, when choices are made by learners and staff as to which maths course they should take.

To achieve this, we need much better Careers Advice for students at 14, their choices then should dictate which maths courses they take, not force them all through the GCSE sieve and hope that some tumble out of the holes with a qualification.

Students could take part of the vocational qualification in schools either a L1 or L2 and then complete it in FE, taking their L2 and/or L3 in FE. Academic students could continue with GCSE Maths and other GCSE's for preparation for A level.

If they changed their mind at 16, then they would still have the qualifications needed on entry to FE to take a Progression Course to move them forwards or move directly onto a Vocational L3 or an Academic A level. Both are equally valuable and equally useful and one should not be pushed at the expense of the other.

Lack of Value

Historically, Maths was of no interest at all to the Government. Students were not enrolled onto GCSE courses if they were unable to pass it. It was recognised that it was a waste of everyones time and could only serve to cause misery to the student. Those who were close, e.g. a good D grade were encouraged to retake and gain a C, others were put on Basic or Key Skills, neither of which were of much use. Too many with a D grade ignored the GCSE and used a proxy to bypass the vocational part of Key Skills and take a short on-line test and emerge with a L2 qualification.

That didn't prepare them either. Too many students were leaving colleges with insufficient knowledge of the application of Maths and English. Key Skills turned into Functional Skills and again, many students were enrolled onto those courses in an attempt to get them a L2 qualification. But L2 Functional Skills isn't really the same as a Grade C GCSE, no matter how many times the Government insist it is. 


The Programme of Study will not achieve miraculous improvements in thirty six weeks. Whole cohorts of learners will not magically raise themselves up from their E, F and G grades to emerge with a C or B, simply because they have been told to attend Maths. 

Change takes time; good teaching, well qualified and experienced staff and supportive, committed Senior Management combined with a government which recognises at last, that 'quick fixes' cause more damage than they purport to fix.

Moving Forwards

GCSE and Functional Skills L2 and the other 295 qualifications demonstrate the lack of consistency and care that has been paid to Maths and English qualifications. If it were a dartboard, even I could hit a qualification, blindfolded, with both arms tied behind my back. The problem is, we never seem to hit the right qualification at the right time. We just lurch from change to change without ever stopping to solve the underlying issues.

It is time to change this, but change will not happen by shifting the blame to a sector that has already shouldered more than its fair share of the blame over recent years. Change can only come when the Government, the Policy Makers, the Awarding Bodies, the Schools, the Career Advice Service, FE and Industry all sit down together and listen to each other.

Students deserve a first class maths qualification and education, whilst FE continues to do its best, we are like the crew of a boat, frantically rowing and baling at the same time.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Rosetta 21 years in the making, just like FE

#STEM, we do bang on about it, heck, even Nicky Morgan waded in with a frankly unbalanced view of its importance (and I say that as a literal #STEM fanatic). She was wrong to deny the importance of the arts and literature. Few appreciate beauty more than a scientist; we look up, out, backwards and forwards with poetry in our hearts.

Today though #STEM really revved up its engines and showed us why it is a subject students should be studying. @El_Timbre showed the live feed in her Further Maths class, they said it was ‘riveting’ and it was.

Rosetta demonstrates the value we want our students to have; team work, planning, determination, motivation, persistence and collaboration. It began in November 1993, when the Mission was approved as a Cornerstone Mission in ESA's Horizons 2000 Science Programme. That’s 21 years ago and planning began earlier, just as we underwent Incorporation with the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

This is a mission that has been underway as long as FE has existed. That is dedication.

Since then, scientists and engineers from all over Europe and the United States have been combining their talents to build an orbiter and a lander for this unique expedition to unravel the secrets of a mysterious 'mini' ice world – a comet.

Rosetta is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus.

It is the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it heads towards the inner Solar System. Rosetta is the first spacecraft to examine from close proximity how a frozen comet is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.

Shortly after it arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta despatched a robotic lander (Philae) for the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus.

The Rosetta lander’s instruments will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in situ analysis to find out what it is made of.

Did you know the comet ‘sings’?

The comet seems to be emitting a ‘song’ in the form of oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment. It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased in this recording.

Why do it?

A project like this produces so many benefits. New technologies, new ways of thinking, leaps in engineering knowledge, new ways of working together.

Scientists will be eagerly waiting to compare Rosetta’s results with previous studies by ESA’s Giotto spacecraft and by ground-based observatories. These have shown that comets contain complex organic molecules - compounds that are rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

These are the elements which make up nucleic acids and amino acids, the essential ingredients for life as we know it.

Did life on Earth begin with the help of comet seeding? Rosetta may help us to find the answer to this fundamental question.

Other missions have looked at:

·         Exploring nature, studying the effects of weightlessness and radiation in space.

·         Observing the earth, mapping phenomena such as the ozone layer and monitoring climate change.
·         Improving health, carrying out human physiology experiments on astronauts to study the effects of weightlessness on the human body and to contribute to solving health problems on Earth.

·         Innovating technologies and processes, studying materials science and fluid physics to help develop new technologies and materials.

·         Caring for the environment, developing life support systems for use in the spacecraft that can also lead to technologies for waste treatment and recycling.

Space exploration serves a cultural and inspirational purpose by fulfilling a deep need to understand the world, address questions about the origins of life and the nature of the universe. Comets could be the link.

As a friend pointed out today as we were watching the feed and waiting for the telemetry “100 years ago, we were fighting and killing each other in Europe, today, we are collaborating and celebrating this great project”.
Tomorrow, discuss it with your students. Is it money well spent, what are the advantages, are they inspired? Use Rosetta for Art, Religion, Humanities, Music, History, Literacy, Maths, Engineering, Health and of course, Science.
Most of all, celebrate this very human achievement with those who are our future.