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Exciting initiative! Collaboration! Impact…?

Updated: Apr 17

With so many challenges seen in Further Education English and maths, there are now more initiatives, strategies and approaches than ever being trialled throughout FE. From different styles of intervention (ranging from 1:1 to 5:1 to additional tutoring to flipped learning approaches and everything in between) to changes to facilitation location (from classroom to workshop to salon), it’s fantastic to see the different approaches being trialled to long-standing challenges.


Attendance, negative previous experience, student engagement and timetabling are just a few of the common areas of challenge seen across FE, and each remains a key focus.


But with so many challenges, it can be difficult at times to identify which to focus on and which (when resolved) will have the greatest impact.


Often, when attempting to resolve so many challenges (as well as the internal challenges seen in any organisation, from recruitment and retention to supporting new teachers and the ‘day to day’ of the job), it can be difficult to find suitable reflection time. Reflection time which is absolutely vital.


We regularly see strategies which aim to resolve attendance issues, student exam anxiety, teacher workload, student apathy, and all look fantastic – driving engagement with students, collaboration with vocational teams and increased support from senior leaders. But what is the true impact of these strategies? What did vocational colleague engagement look like over 6 weeks, 3 months, a full academic year? What was the ‘stickability’?


Additionally, what is next? No strategy lasts forever; so many of the strategies we use have diminishing returns – when do we formulate a new approach having evaluated that a strategy has met a natural end?


There is so much engagement and excitement within the FE English and maths community around action research, new and existing projects and sharing best practice, and this is fabulous to see (at local, regional and national level, for all of our students). However, it’s important that we develop and speak in a shared language around what positive impact looks like.


Student engagement is often a benchmark metric used in evaluation of a new strategy or innovation – though this is great to see, this can mean so many different things to so many people. What does improved/ increased/ positive student engagement actually look like? This could be anything from engagement in group activities (where previously there had been none) to a surge in student attendance.


Similarly, ‘student achievement’ is a term which is used by different people in different ways: to some, this will mean achieving a grade 4 or a FS Pass; to others, this will mean moving from a grade 1 to a grade 2 or achieving 5 more marks. To others still, this will mean entering an exam hall for the first time having previously refused.


This is why it is so important that we design strategies and innovations to be measured across a range of metrics: achievement, attendance, progress, confidence and (for want of a better word) happiness. What use is a strategy which supports a student to achieve a GCSE in English, but also hate reading?


Similarly, it’s vitally important that we measure the input and setup resource against the likely outcome. Again, fantastic for students to achieve, but if this comes at the cost of 3-5 pastoral team members supporting a single student for 10 hours a week, this is clearly not sustainable.


I once worked with a Construction team that sent out termly letters to all students. Students would receive one of three letters, informing them they were either working above expectation, at expectation or had work to do meet expectations. These letters were printed and sent to students by the college pastoral team and showed very promising results, with great impact on student performance, work ethic and achievement. It was suggested that this approach could be launched college-wide, that is until it was realised that this would mean the 5 pastoral team members would now need to send out 5000 letters, instead of 300 (taking up the majority of their time each term).


We regularly talk about individualising our approach (in sessions, across the country and potentially even for future qualifications), yet too often adopt whole-college, catch-all strategies. What works for GCSE English resit students in Construction, may well not work for Functional Skills L1 maths students in Hair and Beauty. Replicability is key, but so is variability.


A fantastic example of an initiative which is relatively low cost, with significant impact is this fascinating study by the Behavioural Insights team when looking to improve attendance and student achievement (in the form of gaining a pass or grade 4): https://www.bi.team/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Texting-students-ALERT-working-paper-2017.pdf


As a quick summary, sending specifically worded texts at specific times so fantastic increases in both attendance and achievement. These texts are extremely low cost and can be automated through the vast majority of existing college MIS systems.


Again, it’s great to see so many exciting strategies, innovations and projects occurring throughout the FE landscape – let’s just make sure that we keep our focus on the impact on those we are here to serve: our students.


For more resources to support exam preparation, as well as a wealth of teaching and revision resources, and innovative tracking and progress monitoring tools, get in touch to see how you can access our fully funded, DfE project. To be a part of the great work we’re doing, find out more here.

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