Friday, 23 December 2011

Eight Out Of Ten Cats...

I first had this idea about a year ago. Now I'm beginning to see others saying similar things and, although I haven't quite got my head around exactly what I want to do, here's the gist of it. I see college students at various places where I work every day and must have about 100 at the moment that I'm teaching at some point or other through the week. (My remarks are a general summary of what I find overall and do not necessarily all relate to any one institution). Some students are bright, some have trouble understanding their timetable, never mind assignment instructions. Some arrive on time for their 9 o'clock session, most don't. Some actually do some useful work during the session. Most don't.

Now you're probably already shaking your fist at the screen or shouting at me something to the effect that this shows a good number have no respect for the college rules, me or that they should be disciplined, thrown off the course and that it's all my fault. If I were a better tutor or course manager then everything in the garden would be lovely...

I have, therefore, asked them for some honest reasons as to why they either arrive late and my colleagues for similarly honest reasons as to why the ones that struggle are on the course in the first place. I knew the answers already but it was good to get confirmation. All many students really want to do is stay on a course for as long as they can or until they get a job. They want to go to university next and that will allow a further extension before they really will have to start working full-time. Few have any real hope of getting a decent full-time job when they leave school so they come to college. Those that might have done well at job interviews are probably the ones who also got good grades at school and so could either go straight to university instead or are the few bright sparks who I've got, with grades that were just not quite good enough so they're doing A level equivalent courses at college and then hoping to go to university.

By far the majority didn't do very well at school, maybe scraped through a few GCSEs and now are scraping through another batch of subjects at college. Several at one place had wanted to do something other than what they're enrolled on but the department managers in that area had got their act together and insisted on decent GSCEs and references before taking students on. So the students tried a department where tutors were instructed to take almost anyone because the numbers enrolled had to meet some target. Not meeting the target would mean fewer teaching hours and so fewer tutors. Someone also said that the college has a pastoral role, care in the community and all that. If they didn't take them they'd be roaming the streets so they were doing the local community a service. Some students had some pretty dodgy behaviour history too and, if their parents weren't going to show them some good practice then that was the college's role too. So we finish up with a class comprising a few who genuinely want to study that subject and have the right attitude and a load that don't really and haven't.

Because their parents get quite considerable tax breaks or income support for them remaining in full-time education, and some do still get an Educational Maintenance Allowance or similar weekly payment for attending too, there is massive pressure at home for them to be a college student. Some I've spoken to would, in fact, be content doing some part-time work and gaining some experience in the real world, even tedious jobs, but their parents insist that they stay at college. So stay they do. They've worked out that it is almost impossible to remove them from a course unless they behave absolutely ridiculously badly and, although some can be a pain, they know how to play the game and don't cause trouble on the premises. They've also worked out that they don't need to attend many classes to pass the course. They just need to do a pile of assignments. There are a lot of assignments but no exams so, as long as they hand something in sometime before June that is good enough to get past the basic criteria then that's all that's needed and, remarkably sometimes, they do finally come in with what's required although quite where they've got it from is often a question not easily answered.

Of course, passing, say a level 2 course means that they can move on next year to a level 3 course. That lasts another two years so colleges have got them for three years at least. That's money in the bank for the college, for their parents and a qualification to boot that can probably then get them into one of the less concerned universities where they'll have another three years not having to worry about getting a job and support continuing to trickle into the home too.

Commands from on high about attendance targets and success rates pervade all that tutors do. If someone has them missing attendance ticks from the register then they get hauled before panels and get planted on some action plan form or another that is supposed to correct things. So now tutors don't bother. As long as they see them at some point in the day and know they're alive then they're there and their attendance figures look exemplary. They may not get the maintenance grants (as no-one will sign those unless they turn up) but there are rather fewer of those now and the sums are less significant too.

For success rates, with everyone staying the course and handing in bare pass material then job done, 100% thank you very much. Well, there's always one or two who do drop out, move home, get arrested or something so it's nearer 80-90% but that's OK. The college can publish reasonable figures and everyone's happy.

Except they're not. The bright sparks who want to study and learn more in lessons don't get a chance to when the others are around. Either there's too much noise, not enough pcs or the tutor is constantly having to ask some to stop playing games, turn off the phone, demand explanations of why they are they late etc. Some actually quite like it when the others are really late or don't turn up at all. For example, I can get on really well and move some of the students way forward and discuss progress properly with them. Not all my colleagues, understandably however, allow the others that flexibility and the good ones suffer as a result.

So the others are not so happy either. I may ignore the passenger students and basically let them play the game but they have a rough time with colleagues who don't. So those colleagues don't have the best of days when they're teaching that group either where many just reluctantly sit in the sessions waiting for break time.

All in all, this is a disaster. Something has to change and this is what I'd like to do. Sweep away the classrooms, the timetables and even some of the courses too. Enrol everyone on a new type of programme that provides the skills that employers demand nowadays, in fact have been demanding for years but we don't seem to do a great deal about it. In their first year they do the basics, Maths, English, communication skills and the like plus some other useful modules that may be pertinent to their general career direction. Then they move on to the specific modules related to what they want to achieve. More often than not these would be shaped by employers because they would be helping to fund the education and offering to take some of them on at the end. So, where this applied, the students would be learning what the employers needed them to learn as a priority.

This programme could be a variation of a foundation degree in the UK for many of the existing level 3 candidates currently doing BTEC National Diploma type programmes which seem to be the bedrock for so many Further Education institutions. Attendance ceases to be an issue because the vast majority of learning can take place on-line, at home or wherever. When they want to learn, where they want to learn at a pace they want to learn at. I would suggest that regular 'workshops' are arranged whereby the tutors do meet the students face-to-face and can assist them individually with their progress or specific queries. This is the Work Based learning model that I have seen used effectively at Middlesex University and could be adapted with a little imagination and effort.

Existing institutions could run this type of programme with rooms cleared of pcs and clutter, furnished as pleasant enviornments where tutors and students can chat as well as work, using laptops, tablets, wireless networks etc. as well as a few pcs or macs. Only those institutions that could prove that they can work in the community with local employers to deliver what was required, though, would get the business so I guess many might close. This opens the door to other types of organisation to offer them instead and I don't see any big problem with that, provided that they can set up the appropriate quality controls over assessment and employ the staff to run things.

That brings me to the other matter - that of quality. Once the ridiculous, and, honestly they are laughable, targets and benchmarks for Further Education are binned then we can start to see both honest assessment and students passing because they genuinely have done what they should have done and all the nonsense about attendance and shouting at students who don't turn up at 9am or can't concentrate at 10:15am for some reason virtually disappears. Those who want to learn and get on will do, some quickly, some not so quickly - it's up to them to a large extent. With some guidance they manage their own learning. The quality of such figures as are produced will also be sound as there should be fewer reasons to want to fiddle them. Local competing institutions might even decide to work together. Good grief, that would be different!

Lastly, students on this type of programme would be free to work as and when they wished. As well as providing some much-needed income for themselves and, I suppose, their parents, they could be learning so much more about what work is actually like and, who knows, even get that thing about getting to places on time, behaving responsibly and even getting certain tasks completed on time! Just like they are constantly being asked to do at a college but which few actually ever seem to manage to achieve willingly. Employment is the answer to a lot of things. Employers can sack them. Tutors can't. Employers can offer real incentives that they recognise. Tutors can't. Employers can offer a tangible, realistic prospect of a future. Tutors can't.

So I would like to ask anyone out there who thinks they could support a Universal Foundation Degree programme along these lines to get in touch and, especially, to see whether there are any commercial organisations who might represent potential financial backers at the outset as setting this up takes time and money. I have a few expert e-learning colleagues who are interested in joining me with possible designs for modules that could be validated by a university to deliver some of the foundation modules referred to. Naturally, there will be a mass of other modules required to meet a wide range of future progression needs but, to a large extent, these ought to be available through tweaking of existing course units, modules or whatever.

After briefly outlining the idea to a group of 40 or so students some time ago, at least half of them said that they would have preferred to study that way if they had had the choice. Of the rest, they were evenly divided between those who liked the discipline and organisation of college as it stood and wanted to remain in a school-like environment. The others said they didn't mind, provided that they weren't worse off and could still get a qualification (and I'm not sure they were paying that much attention to what I was saying!) So my guess is that about 8 out of 10 of eligible students would, in fact, go for it - if the funding or grants were there. There does exist funding for part-time Foundation Degree programmes through Finance England but that is related to family income so its not ideal but I suspect there are other sources that those in the know might be able to tap to make such a venture feasible.

As I said, it's time for a change, and hopefully one where I can help make a difference!

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