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English and maths in FE: central team or embedded component?

One of the special things about Further Education is how truly unique it is. From the spectrum of students and professionals to the range of collaboration, there is nothing like FE. A statement which is unlikely to cause any controversy, this provides opportunities and challenges which can’t be found anywhere else (with unique solutions).

This is no truer than for Post-16 English and maths, where many leadership, management and team structures and hierarchies can make it possible to get lost looking for the ‘right’ structure.

Whether led by a Head of English and/ or maths (E&M), Assistant Principal(s), Curriculum Leaders, subject specialists or other, the majority of English and maths teachers are split across one of two organising groups: a central team (with central leadership) or specialists embedded into vocational departments (with vocational leaders).

Of course, there are pros and cons to both.

A central team has the benefit of consistency in leadership and management, with decisions made more efficiently utilising specialist knowledge and experience, and a clarity in overall strategy and vision (so everyone knows what they should be doing, when, how and (most importantly) why). This can be difficult to facilitate when English and maths teachers are led by a number of vocational leaders.

There are also opportunities for regular informal collaboration: shared offices, classrooms and corridors facilitate thousands of micro-collaborations and water-cooler moments which are not always there when siloed in vocational areas. Additionally, there is a sense of joint ownership and professional pride in a central team (with proven motivational and wellbeing benefits). Conversely, there can be detachment when working in vocational areas, away from subject colleagues.

However, there are challenges.

In a central team, there are demands on leadership team which mean English and maths teachers have less input (whereas in vocational areas, E&M teachers are often asked by vocational leaders to give the deciding input on decisions). This can also lead to detachment for teachers. Similarly, a central English and maths leader may have preferences around pedagogy, organisation, timetabling or hundreds of other factors with limited teachers input (which leads to dependence and slow/ ineffective decision making).

With distribution of English and maths teachers into vocational areas, there are opportunities to share best practice with vocational teachers and more closely witness students in vocational sessions (enormously benefitting English and maths teaching). There can also be profound freedom when working within a vocational area as vocational leaders defer to English and maths experts.

This also leads to the development of closer relationships with vocational teachers and leaders, giving a better understanding of student context. This can significantly impact improvements in attendance, attitude and motivation and overall behaviour within English and maths sessions without constant updates of ProMonitor (or similar) because these conversations occur naturally in corridors and offices: a different kind of watercooler conversation.

The difficulty in writing this piece is that there is a very strong case to be made for both preferences of organisation (with an aligned piece identifying the challenges with each).

With significant experience of both, the reality is usually much simpler: the most important factors are the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership, with organisation very much a secondary factor.

If leadership is below expectations (centrally or in vocational areas), decisions which impact teaching will be ineffective. This is why it is important for vocational leaders (with embedded E&M teachers) to work with embedded teachers, and why central E&M leaders must have regular dialogue and feedback with teachers. Teaching quality clearly has a significant impact on student success: this is why it is important for vocational and central leaders to identify and facilitate regular CPD. As Dylan Wiliam notes, ‘every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better’.

Similarly, if an effective leader manages ineffective teachers, we are unlikely to see success. As Wiliam also says, ‘A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught’.

If you were reading this hoping for a ‘this is the right structure’ epiphany, apologies this wasn’t provided! The reality is much more complex and also much simpler: good teaching and leadership will always have the biggest impact.

Whether a student, teacher or leader in English and maths within Further Education, The BASE Project has a library of DfE funded tools and resources to support all stakeholders.

For more information on the BASE Project, and how it is supporting colleges in the Northeast, Yorkshire and Humberside, check out our website here.

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