Archive for September, 2011


Further Education

September 16, 2011

I did some supply teaching in an FE college.

My timetable was split between A-level classes and classes of overseas students (mainly Chinese) doing a pre-degree course which was more advanced than A-level. (It was taught with A-level books from the early 1990s, something I’d like to see explained by those who claim dumbing-down is a myth.)

The overseas students were a bit of a shock. Most of them (particularly the Chinese ones), despite having to work in another language, already knew most of what they were being taught. They were just going through hoops in order to get into an English university.

The A-level classes were closer to what I was used to. However, they were a lot bigger than sixth form classes. My experience in school sixth forms was that you could up results by piling on the pressure:  lots of homework, letters home, a constant refrain of “this is not like GCSE, you will have to study hard in your own time in order to pass”. The classes in the FE college were too big for this approach. You had to leave them to their own devices and too often this simply wasn’t sufficient. Too many were there for their EMA (this was before it was abolished) and an easy life. Too many had jobs in their spare time which meant that homework could not be set overnight. Too many had the low expectations that were normal in the local schools and no idea that college would need to be different.

The biggest difference was in how courses were managed. The scale of the college meant that nobody was paying close attention to whether kids were on the right course. A complex system of referrals was used to deal (slowly) with issues that would be dealt with informally at schools. This left kids, who were obviously destined to fail, stuck in classrooms where they wouldn’t learn. Students who failed very basic tests were given endless chances to resit. Departments were managed by lecturers who didn’t teach the subject in question. There was less micro-management than in a school – nobody ever wanted to see me teach – but there was also indifference as to whether the schemes of work made sense or whether the resources available were appropriate.

The department itself was friendlier, the culture more informal, and the level of conversation more intelligent, than school staffrooms. There was far more respect for the students than in schools. When it was announced that a student was absent due to being stuck in his (or possibly her) room with “gender issues” it was taken a lot more seriously than I can imagine would happen in a school staffroom. However, a lot of time was spent complaining about contracts. It was a given that the college would take advantage of lecturers. I discovered that the person I replaced had quit after a year there in a promoted post, in order to go somewhere he would earn less money. Others were talking about leaving, again because of pay and conditions. Eventually, I experienced it firsthand. My hours were totalled up at the end of the month and I discovered I was being paid far less than promised. My complaints were ignored, and I was passed from one person to another as the blame was passed round. Eventually I concluded that the problem was with the person who offered me the job lying to me, rather than the agency or an administrative oversight, and I quit. A colleague told me as I packed my bag:

“It will be the college that is the problem. They are always ripping people off. They almost went bankrupt last year and, for a while, we were wondering if we were going to be paid.”

I decided to avoid FE colleges in future.


The Failing Department

September 1, 2011

I do occasionally ask if anybody has anything they’d like to contribute to this blog. About once a year something comes in, although invariably from someone I know in real-life. This was written by an old friend of mine who is now a senior teacher at a church school. I think you’ll be able to guess which department he works in.

The Blessed Snowball Academy had a failing dept. Everyone at the school knew it. The teachers knew it, the parents knew it and the kids knew it; they told everyone they hated it. It was the maths department.

The school also has an outstanding department. Everyone at the school knew it this as well. It was the English department. “English good, maths bad” was effectively the school motto. The start of each year consisted of a meeting where statistics were waved about to support the ritual chanting of “English good, maths bad.”  Everything in the school was geared around this motto, and belief. The teachers in the maths department were regularly lambasted, bullied and harassed by pupils and staff alike. Pupils didn’t expect to behave, or learn in the lesson, so the teachers were in a constant battle to make the children learn. Staff turn over was high, only a few remained year on year. The local authority liked them though, they tried all of the new initiatives, current fads, creative ideas to stop being the school’s failing department.

A few years back, the Head of the Blessed Snowball Academy decided to overstaff the maths department by employing some teachers from other successful departments around the country while also getting in and recruiting the top NQTs available. The first thing they did was undermine the relationship between the local authority and the school and introduced “back to basics” education, focused on exam success. In the last few years the department has felt transformed.

After the last set of results the maths department had exceeded the FFTD target by 8%;  in fact their performance put the department in the top 5% of maths departments in the country. The “outstanding” English department had only just hit their FFTD target, and had dropped a few points form last year. So first day back at the start of year meeting the members of the maths department walked in -shoulders back, chins up – feeling that the hard work had been worth it. The talk turned to the exam results, and it was announced:

“If the maths department could have got all the students who passed English to also pass maths then we’d be 20% better off. So maths, you need to do more work to be like our outstanding English department.”

Or in other words: “English good, maths bad.”

Apparently, by not hitting the aspirational targets the department had used to motivate and inspire students, the maths department had failed; they were still the failing department. I wonder how many of the teachers will bother to stay.

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