Saturday 26 May 2012

The van could be Japanese!

There is a serious need for some common sense advice from someone in Government, Ofsted or anyone that education management might listen to. I have just seen a form that tutors are being instructed to complete for every session. It has to be one of the worst forms I have seen in a long time. Never mind the layout or even the desperate grammar (although if I were an Inspector I would be inclined to wonder to what extent this reflected the quality of the Quality Department or Management Group that probably spent many hours drafting it). Even if, and this a pretty massive if, even if we give these people credit for wanting to help somehow, and generally have good intentions at heart to improve the experience of some students or another and we ignore the fact that no-one does complete this at any time other than when they think they might be observed - despite all that, it is all quite bonkers.

Let's just for a moment consider what it is that we're trying to achieve: I suggest two objectives, the first being clear, easy to read materials that take into account any difficulties that some students may have in following instructions contained in, or learning from, handouts and the second being demonstrating that tutors don't somehow show disrespect for or indicate some judgement about a group comprising a particular race, creed, religion, sexual preference or whatever.

Fair enough. No one should be producing poorly designed documents that are difficult to read or interpret. No one should be setting up one group of type of person as an object of amusement or distaste on grounds of race, creed, gender etc. We know that. Nothing new there. I have to say that, in fact, I reckon the poor folk working as Health & Safety advisors probably have had more cause to complain since all these regulations have been on the scene than any coloured, gay, Jehova's Witness or disabled person. I mean, they have had a really bad time. At virtually every meeting I've attended in the last 10 years someone has cracked a joke about the Health & Safety man, done the Kenny Everett impression of political correctness gone mad and Equality & Diversity caricatures have started appearing too.

So just what is this extraordinary form designed for? OK, designed isn't a good word here, especially if you have any sense of good layout, proportion and use of space but that is another matter. Well, it might be another matter. We'll see. Let's look at what it is asking.

What strand(s) of the Single Equality Act do the learning materials impact on? I think they mean: which type of possible discrimination do they not emphasise? Or which bit of the Act are we attempting to prove that we are observing? Yes, that's more like it, isn't it? Someone has said that Ofsted will be checking how we comply with the Act so why don't we have a form that says we do.

That could make sense as some kind of general policy that we all signed up to. Some general guidance on preparation of learning materials, perhaps, and examples of good practice where ostensibly real scenarios were to be envisaged in a particular session. No problem there. But it's not necessary to have to do this for every single session. I teach web design. One week I may ask them to consider making a site for a client of mine who is  obviously white, lives in a nice part of the country and does wonderful carpentry work for clients who have nice houses and lots of money, judging by the illustrations of the work he does for them. Another week I may give them a Nepalese restaurant in a grotty part of Golders Green to design for. If I were to attempt to invent some client who dealt with transexual clothing and Indian Head Massage in Brighton they would laugh me out of the room. Indeed, some might even be genuinely unhappy about working on that. By not mentioning anything like that, by dealing with the real world that I live in and which they might realistically find themselves invited to work in themselves (I do use students to help my clients so it is real) then I don't offend anyone and the sort of weird problems that managers seem to be worrying about don't even arise in the first place.

Imagine the hairdresser who is taught to make conversation with customers. The age-old question 'Where are you going on yer 'olidays then?' would appear to be quite unacceptable now. Ooh, we mustn't put them in a possibly embarrassing position - they might not be able to afford a holiday. A holiday implies that they're working in the first place. the Single Act police would presumably have her ask 'Do you find that ankle tag device interferes with your ability to chat up people of the same sex in an interdenominational environment?' or something completely innocuous like 'Do you like the way the salon door opens?'

Do the learning materials have an adverse impact on any of the above Groups, or any other groups?
Eh? ...or any other groups? OK, I am rather concerned that JLS won't be happy but the Stones have said they're not too bothered. What other groups? I should imagine that there is bound to be someone somewhere that might profess to experience an adverse impact but that may well be because they're intolerant or just plain mad and should be ignored at all costs. Or the chances are so remote that they'll ever know what we're doing for an hour or so in room A411 that it really doesn't matter. Crazy.

Then we have to think a bit more about this section. Surely, if this form is supposed to be attached to every lesson plan as staff are ordered, then the ruddy materials will have been fixed if they were problematic before the actual session and so, logically, the answer to that section has to be simply 'No.' I understand that Quality personnel would like to demonstrate that they have a process to weed out stuff that is likely to offend or have that 'adverse impact' but surely that would be a pile of samples they have examined and corrected. It doesn't make sense to have to show it in every plan. In fact, any Inspector worth his salt will smile ruefully and realise he's being conned - or conclude that the tutor is plain silly.

How will the learning materials promote good relations? With whom? Anyone? The Society of Aborigine Anti Abortionists? The Kennel Club? The Conservative Party? George at 19 Acacia Avenue? I just love that sentence: The van could be Japanese. That is absolutely brilliant!! You really do have to read the example illustrated. If you haven't had a good laugh for a while then make sure you're sitting down and have some tape for your sides. Come on, managers, it can be difficult enough to draft tasks that meet criteria and which can be enjoyable and inspiring for students. Help them do that, not worry them about whether or not they're promoting good relations or every flaming task and assignment will be along the lines of Design a poster to promote Adopt A Person Of Religious Minority Week. Oh no, that won't work because by promoting one group one is de facto not promoting another! Balls.

I could go on. In fact I will. It ends with the signature of Mr, Ms, Miss or Mrs Monitored By. That implies that the individual lesson plans are all being individually monitored by someone. How can that make sense? Checked, maybe. But monitoring something is a continuous process. It could be appropriate for the more general course materials proposed for a term, a batch of assignments perhaps while they're being developed.  But an assignment can only be issued after it has been internally verified. That process confirms that the work  outlined as being required to be completed provides suitable opportunities for certain criteria to be met. Meet them and the student passes. Since when did Edexcel or C&G require that all the other stuff was required? Sensible IVs will suggest improvements and will recognise where material might be unsuitable or inappropriate. A further layer of compliance procedures is not going to help anyone.

Lastly, this whole form reminds me of a manager who thought that putting a table on an A4 sheet in Microsoft Word so that small rectangles could easily be cut up for topic cards or something was a good example of ILT (Information Learning Technology) at a session set up specifically to inspire colleagues in his department to develop their ILT skills. Surely, in 2012, we should be putting our materials on-line, using web pages, collaborative tools, video, audio, games and all sorts of wonderful new applications where, amongst other advantages, the matter of text size, even fonts can be adjusted easily by those who need to. I have a student with poor sight and he much prefers my instructions in a blog format where he can simply enlarge everything and change the contrast so it is clear for him to read.

The very language that we use when writing our materials is a key matter too. If tutors' own grammar and spelling were better then there might be some hope that students' English will improve too. By all means, Quality and Senior Managers, Inspectors et al rate us on our language, presentation, communication and ability to inspire in class. But please, don't ask us to look stupid.

Friday 11 May 2012

Reasons to be cheerful

If you felt a breeze this afternoon drifting from the Home Counties and surrounding areas inhabited by staff working at an educational institution there then it was probably generated by the massive sigh of relief accompanying the news that OFSTED's imminent Inspection had been postponed.

Due to start on Tuesday, I was faced with Saturday, Sunday and Monday being spent worrying about what to do. It wasn't the sessions I had planned that was bothering me, or whether students would attend / behave or whatever. It was the amount of extra paperwork that was being demanded and the insistence that 'lesson plans' show all sorts of additional things that were going to take an age to include and which were mostly just going to be there in some sort of pretence that it was what we would 'normally' be doing.

For example, I am now running workshops across the board. I have provided long ago all the general teaching and provision of materials and resources that would have enabled a willing and reasonable able student to have completed their units on levels 1 to 4 BTEC programmes to as high a standard as they could achieve. So the idea of a formal 'lesson' with specific topics being addressed and clear 'learning outcomes' would be nonsense and, if I were to do so, then firstly I would have to try and come up with something new at this very late stage in the proceedings and secondly ask quietly beforehand that the students do not say something like 'that's all very interesting, Sir, but what we really wanted to do was complete missing bits in this or that unit'. Yes, I know I could probably have entertained them, or, at least, those that turned up but it would have meant a lot of work, a lot of co-operation from students beginning to panic at this time and wishing they had paid attention more in October. A huge amount of work, in fact, for the 8 potential sessions that inspectors could have dropped in on.

There is also the problem that, even if I had put on a super performance and had them clapping and dancing in the aisles the they would represent at best about 30% of those on the register for a combination of reasons that include many have actually completed everything and won't be there, some who have disappeared and not been seen since January, and those who tend to come to sessions where I have fewest students so they get more attention, mixing and matching very smartly but not in the way college managers seem to appreciate. 'Poor attendance' means unsatisfactory, no matter the reasons or, for that matter, what I do for those who do come.

A further problem is that of something called Equality & Diversity which, in the Education sector, is now going the same way as Health & Safety did in the wider world. It seems that if I cannot demonstrate in my paperwork that I have included specific steps to ensure that students of one or other race or creed can achieve as well as others, can show that I have arranged for everyone to know about odd things like this colour or that colour week, advised them of the dangers of sundry sexually transmitted diseases and reported any suspicions that any are taking drugs or having problems at home or, horrors, communicating with a tutor by any means other than via the official student e-mail which I don't think any of them ever actually use - if I fail in any of these areas in my lesson plan text then I'm unsatisfactory anyway.

So my inclination had been simply to do what I usually do - remind students of what they still had outstanding by way of tasks and offer to help anyone to meet the requirements by showing them in small groups or 1-1 if necessary sample answers, where to find resources etc etc. That's what works. That's what they all appreciate and actually prefer me doing in these last few weeks. I even get queries on other tutors' assignments. It can be challenging as I can never be completely sure what's going to come up but I always manage to give feedback and suggestions to everyone and those that deserve to pass do so. That wouldn't have made me popular with some senior management, though. If I'd had to choose between helping students pass and helping the place get a good grade, however, then I have to say I was definitely thinking more about the former option and hoping that OFTSED might see the sense of what I was doing and get some nice comments from any students they landed upon too.

It was going to be a nerve-wracking few days. I am so very relieved. I can now continue to do what comes naturally and have a nice, peaceful weekend. The people demanding all the new paperwork have good intentions at heart but they'd be better starting from scratch with a new team in September, with digital documentation and decent ways to collect, report on and monitor progress in these off-topic, pastoral and 'minority' or 'social' areas than attempt to get tutors to invent stuff now or spend hours rewriting plans that may well not even be seen at a stage when it simply isn't in the best educational interests of the students attending at this time and wanting to complete their tasks.

Naturally, the fact that the institution due to be inspected was still in the middle of a quite prolonged reorganisation, with many posts vacant, visiting tutors covering for redundant staff, students demonstrating about their concerns at what might happen to their courses next year, unions drawing up petitions about this and that, staff and students being moved en masse to temporary and rather last minute arranged accommodation, one department's staff being entirely at risk of redundancy and staff left doing their level best already to ensure that things go smoothly just to get their students through while people move offices and even stand-in managers disappear at short notice has aboslutely nothing to do with the postponement. I do rather suspect, however, that it might not just have been teaching staff that breathed that huge sigh!

All will be well next term - let's just hope they can put it off til then.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Latest funding and grants news

Here's the latest news of money floating around, one or more of which may be worth applying for. Beware of some rather tight application deadlines in some cases!

Research and Knowledge Exchange (RAKE) Fund UG3180

The 2012 Call for Applications for the Research and Knowledge Exchange (RAKE) Fund is now open.

The RAKE Fund is provided by a partnership involving Barclays Bank and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and is delivered on their behalf by the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE).

The fund aims to encourage new research activities from within the academic community, third sector groups and research consultants or practitioners. At present, the scheme aims to engage with exploring processes and possibilities of SME internationalisation.

Academic researchers, third sector research organisations, research consultants and practitioners are eligible to apply.

ISBE expects to fund number of projects, which will each receive grants ranging between £10,000 and £12,000.

The closing date for applications is Friday 15 June 2012 (5pm).
Successful applicants will be notified by mid-September.

Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (UK) UE7330

The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) was established in 1990 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Warrant Holders Association and the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

The objective of the Trust is to support excellence in British crafts.

Each scholarship is worth between £1,000 and £15,000, depending on how much funding is required for a project. Scholarship winners also receive an emblazoned certificate.

Eligible applicants are craftsmen and women of all ages who live and work permanently in the UK. Applicants must be able to demonstrate that they already have a high level of skill and are firmly committed to their craft or trade.

The deadline for the summer 2012 Scholarships has been confirmed as 24 May 2012.

LSIS Organisational Effectiveness Fund 2012-2013

LSIS is pleased to invite bids from learning and skills provider organisations to join the LSIS Organisational Effectiveness Fund 2012-2013 (formerly known as the Resource Utilisation Network Fund).The fund is designed to support projects which deliver significant improvements in efficiency, effectiveness or the generation of financial surplus, in sector practice.

Bids, up to a maximum of £20,000, may be submitted by provider organisations working individually or in collaboration with others but must be for activities that will have transferable learning and benefits for the wider sector rather than just an individual organisation.

Projects should demonstrate cost savings or increases in surplus due to changes in organisational practice, new products or processes and transformation of service delivery either front line or back office.

We will also welcome applications for expanding current successful programmes to improve their effectiveness. These changes and benefits should demonstrate that they can deliver outcomes which are sustainable year on year. The projects and programmes must be capable of delivering clearly replicable learning that is transferable across the sector or parts of it.

Applications can be made by completing the application form below and returning<> by 12pm midday on Monday 21 May 2012. Applications must be submitted using Microsoft Word. PDF documents will not be accepted. Late applications cannot be considered.

Supporting documents:

* Application Form - Organisational Effectiveness Fund
* Terms and Conditions - Organisational Effectiveness Fund
* Top ten characteristics of winning bids

Previous successful case studies can be found on the Excellence Gateway

Regional Sustainability Advisers - promoting sustainable development in your region

LSIS wishes to build on the excellent progress that has been made in embedding sustainability into the business of the learning and skills sector, by continuing to offer support to providers through Regional Sustainability Advisers (RSAs) who can help lead change in their region.

A number of RSAs appointed in 2011-12 have chosen to continue in the role. We are therefore currently seeking three Regional Sustainability Advisers, one for each of the following regions:

* London
* the South East
* Yorkshire and the Humber

The RSAs will be ambassadors for embedding sustainability into organisational strategy, practice and performance, and for developing the capacity and capability of sustainability leaders to drive change.

The closing date for applications is 12:00 midday on Monday 28th May 2012.

For more information and to apply, please see the information below.

Supporting documents:

* Regional Sustainability Advisers - Invitation
* Regional Sustainability Advisers - FAQs
* Regional Sustainability Advisers - Application form

LSIS STEM Fund: Raising awareness of STEM opportunities with learners through 'Big Bang Near Me' fairs

The aim of The Big Bang programme of events is to engage, inspire and motivate learners to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

LSIS is now offering funding to enable FE and skills providers to plan, deliver and evaluate their own Big Bang fair during 2012-13. The events should offer a valuable CPD opportunity for staff, and inspiration for current and future learners, all centred on STEM subjects. This will involve working in partnership with employers in local STEM-related industries and other organisations.

There is a maximum grant available for Raising awareness of STEM opportunities with learners through 'Big Bang Near Me' fairs of up to £10,000 per project. The Big Bang team will provide an online toolkit and telephone support.

Applications can be made by completing the attached form and sending by email to by MIDNIGHT on Monday 11th June 2012.

Supporting documents:

* Guidance and application form

Bedfordshire Small Business Awards – UG1220

The Bedfordshire Small Business Awards are intended to showcase the very best of the small businesses in Bedfordshire.
There is a first prize of £5,000 in advertising provided by Premier Newspapers.
Award Categories are as follows:

* Best New Business Award
* Employee of the Year
* Enterprising Business
* Business Person of the Year
* Young Business Person of the Year
* Real Life Entrepreneur
* Training and Development Award
* Franchisee of the Year
* Networking Group of the Year
* Business Innovation Award
* Green Business Award
* Service Excellence Award
* Best E-Business Award
* Business Woman of the Year
* Retailer of the Year Award

The competition is open to all businesses based in Bedfordshire or companies that can prove the majority of their business is conducted in Bedfordshire.

Entrants must be sole traders or have less than 200 employees at the time of entering.

The 2012 deadline has been extended to 4 May 2012.

The Awards Ceremony will be held at the Mansion House, Shuttleworth Park, Old Warden on 13 June 2012.