Stretch your mind and exercise your FE body

New year, new start – but don't make resolutions you can't keep. Revisit the ghosts of problems past to set intentions for the future
2nd January 2015, 12:00am


Stretch your mind and exercise your FE body

Early January is brilliant. During those first few days of the year, all our regrets can be hoovered up into the metaphorical Henry and forgotten about, along with a few fronds of tinsel and shards of walnut shell. I don't hold with new year's resolutions as I'm not keen to dwell on my inadequacies. But reframing retrospective problems as promises for the future makes the endeavour much more hopeful. So, further education colleges, put your hands on your careworn hearts and repeat after me:

I will create a community of good practice

Whether that community is three people in an office, a department, an entire college or the whole sector, there is good stuff that needs to be shared. Pooling expertise and resources is logical not only because it drives up the quality of provision but also because it creates links between staff who may not otherwise have cause to collaborate. Friendships are formed, support networks grow and a sense of family emerges. The happy by-product is an increase in morale and loyalty.

I will shun corporate nonsense-speak

No one has any cash and, understandably, it's all we ever talk about. If you're three days away from the bailiffs busting in to repossess your telly, what else would be on your mind?

As mergers and unavoidable redundancies rip through the sector, leadership teams must find ingenious ways to make colleges more efficient, serving the same communities with decreasing resources. The key to managing change is to be open. Communicate candidly with all staff, not just about what is happening but also about why. If a merger is the only alternative to losing a department or being eaten by the monster college down the road then say that - in proper sentences, not corporate jibber-jabber.

This may not help the now-out-of-work lecturer who is struggling to pay their mortgage, but at least they will understand the reasoning.

I will listen to the views of teachers

There is an ongoing problem with the twin motives of observation. One intention is to put an arm around the teacher's shoulder and guide them on a voyage of self-discovery: exactly what CPD would take their practice to stratospheric heights? However, when observation is used for the less attractive notion of performance management, those developmental opportunities become gigantic skill sinkholes.

A method of ensuring the highest standards of teaching is of course essential, but the path to a framework that includes and empowers is dialogue with the teachers at the other end of the microscope. If staff feel they truly have a voice in a discussion that concerns them, this eliminates the potential for resentment of a process that could be really positive.

I will be consistent in English and maths

The policy that all young people should continue to develop their English and maths skills up to the age of 18 makes sense. It has the purest of motives. However, it has taken me longer to choose a pair of tights than it did for the government to have this idea and insist on its implementation. As a consequence, there is much confusion about who should be studying English and maths, and what qualifications (if any) they should be working towards and why.

Resitting GCSEs over and over doesn't offer students the greatest motivational boost, and there are further problems with the relevance of the GCSE qualification itself. With no concrete answers, the least we can do in colleges is to develop a standardised approach to the teaching of English and maths.

I will welcome Ofsted with poise and grace

The moment we get a whiff of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, we run around in circles shrieking before inventing a host of surprise yet seemingly essential admin tasks. There is no need for this. Ofsted doesn't sneak in a secret book of spells that only leadership teams are allowed to read. Everything the inspectors require is out in the open, published on the website for FE staff of all levels to access.

Remain calm and read every word of what they are actually looking for. Don't create or acknowledge an atmosphere of panic. Remind yourself that, however stressful it may seem, this is a time to shine.

I will celebrate at every opportunity

As we face another challenging year, we must remember that students don't care about our funding issues or heavy workloads. They care about their college experience, about gaining the education and training they need to thrive in whatever career they are pursuing. Moaning is infectious and constant complaining can leave staff irritated and lethargic. So let's bin the whingeing, focus on all the great things that FE continues to achieve and celebrate as often as possible. Is there any new-year champagne left?

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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