How can we keep FE up to date?

In today’s fast-changing world, lecturers in vocational subjects need to update their industry knowledge constantly to ensure that their students acquire the latest skills. The problem is, college staff aren’t being given enough time for CPD. Under such circumstances, how can we make sure that FE remains industry-relevant, asks Sarah Simons
9th August 2019, 12:03am
Why The Skills System Needs To Be Locally Led


How can we keep FE up to date?

Technical education at the very cutting edge, practical training using equipment mirroring that used by the country’s leading employers, and lectures and hands-on tuition from experts versed in latest practice in their industry - that is what colleges and learning providers pride themselves on offering. Indeed, to many, this is the core mission of further education, and a key element that marks the sector as different to schools.

In the Sutton Trust’s 2014 report, What makes great teaching?, more than 200 pieces of research were reviewed to identify what teaching practices resulted in the strongest evidence of improving achievement. Of the six common components identified, top of the list was content knowledge. The report states that “the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning”.

But this is where the challenge lies in further education. While most academic subjects are based on content unlikely to move on significantly from the understanding of the subject that educators gained at university, many vocational subjects are continually shifting. This makes vocational subject knowledge an ever-changing canon that requires regular updating in order for teachers to stay on top of their game.

And in a world where the fast pace of change and the constant advancement of industry is affecting almost every profession, how can we be sure that what colleges teach and how it is taught delivers the skills and competences that are actually required in the workplace? How can we be sure that FE is staying industrially relevant?

The simple answer is by ensuring that lecturers in technical vocations have appropriate access to CPD in their industrial specialism. But that is far from easy. From an organisational perspective, providing access to CPD for staff means careful timetable planning for the individual, the development of collaborative industrial partnerships and time being funded.

The Staff Individualised Record (SIR) data, published earlier this year by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), states that more than half of FE teachers spent 26 to 30 hours per year on CPD in 2017-18, of which 99 per cent spent exactly 30 hours. That is less than one hour per week.

Of the 20 professional standards, published by the ETF in 2014 and created in consultation with practitioners and providers from across the sector, only two explicitly mention the maintenance and updating of vocational knowledge and skills. David Russell, chief executive of the ETF, says: “Of course you should have a significant amount of industrial updating and we don’t do that well in this country entirely because we don’t fund our technical and vocational education properly. When I talk to principals about this, they feel like they are doing a good job if they can get staff back out into industry for two days a year. The best ones are doing it for two weeks a year. But even that would be considered a minimum in many European countries.”

Tes’ FE teacher of the year for 2019, Sam Jones, a lecturer at Bedford College and founder of the FE Research Meet movement, gained a master’s degree on the subject of professional development and is currently working towards a PhD at the University of Cambridge, studying the updating of vocational lecturers’ knowledge. Jones is concerned that with the introduction of T levels later this year, there is as yet “no real plan” to facilitate the industrial updating of the teaching workforce, which is deemed necessary for the qualification’s success. She cites funding and greater flexibility as factors required for staff to be given the time, space and opportunity needed to stay current.

“A university lecturer teaches fewer hours so they have time to stay up to date,” she says. “You need to respect the fact that a vocational lecturer also needs to do research to stay up to date. If you want that knowledge, you need to keep going back to where the knowledge comes from, which for vocational lecturers is industry.”

In a recent University and College Union (UCU) report, Counting the costs of casualisation in further, adult and prison education, 85 per cent of teaching staff said that they did not have enough paid time to undertake the scholarship necessary to stay on top of their subjects. Could dual professionals, in the most literal sense, be the answer? Given the CPD time barrier that FE teaching staff face, could teaching part-time or on a sessional basis, and spending the rest of the week working in the industry about which they are teaching, be a solution?

Last year, UCU data revealed that just under 40 per cent of the lecturing workforce in the FE sector were on some form of casualised contract. In the survey, 92.9 per cent of respondents on a fixed-term contract said they would rather be on a permanent contract, while 71.9 per cent of hourly paid staff said that they would rather be on a contract that guaranteed them hours, even if it meant less flexibility. This raises the question of whether staff who are working between education and industry are doing so out of choice or necessity.

There is little doubt that T levels will play an important role in increasing the industrial relevance of the FE sector and shine a spotlight on the expertise of vocational staff. There may even be a period of time when the qualification specification overtakes industry practice in some areas. This is an unusual scenario to consider when many vocational lecturers are used to making up the shortfall between the qualification syllabus they are required to teach and the updated practices that they believe students will need to enter industry.

Russell explains the gap between qualification specifications and up-to-date industrial application. “It’s an inherent paradox in vocational qualifications that there’s a trade-off between how relevant and up to date they are, and how rigorous they are as qualifications, because it takes time to construct a qualification well,” he says.

This is one reason why returning to industry is vital. If vocational lecturers teach solely from the same qualification specification year after year, they will be unable to see the ways in which the skills and competencies required by the syllabus are becoming outdated. As Jones says: “How can you make up the shortfall if you don’t know where the shortfall is?”

In her research, she has seen numerous examples of teachers bridging the gap between syllabus requirements and industry standards. “We had an electrical engineering lecturer,” she says. “They were making PCBs [printed circuit boards] and the syllabus said they just had to make it - it didn’t have to work. There’s not going to be an employer in the world that says, ‘What you’ve produced doesn’t work, but, yeah, that’s fine.’ So that lecturer taught a lot of problem-solving, in steps students could go through, so they could make it work.”

Another advantage of industrial participation for both staff and students is the opportunity for the procurement of tacit knowledge; knowledge that can’t quite be expressed verbally and is difficult to make visible to other people. The educator Michael Eraut researched and wrote extensively on this subject, producing globally influential texts on learning in the workplace, non-formal learning and professional development. He refers to this tacit knowledge as “skilled behaviour”. In Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, he points out that teachers develop skilled behaviour through “routinization”.

“Teachers’ early experiences are characterised by the gradual routinization of their teaching and this is necessary for them to be able to cope with what would otherwise be a highly stressful situation with a continuing ‘information overload’,” he writes. “This routinization is accompanied by a diminution of self-consciousness and a focusing of perpetual awareness on particular phenomena. Hence, knowledge of how to teach becomes tacit knowledge, something which is not easily explained to others or even oneself.”

For the initial teacher education of the school teacher, there’s the school-based model where the teacher learns on the job (an apprenticeship by another name) or there’s the classroom-based route with significant pre-service training (PGCE or Cert Ed, for example). At the end of both those courses there will be two different teachers who have trained in two different ways. They are both qualified but their career path and their competency probably looks quite different.

A teacher who has learned in a work-based setting will likely start at a higher point of competence because they have experience of behaviours and contextualisation. They are on their way to forming habits of mind and hand - “routinization”. Whereas those who have learned in a mainly classroom-based environment will likely start further back, facing real-world challenges for the first time.

However, once the classroom-taught teacher has had opportunity to gain that necessary work experience, could they actually have a more solid, theoretically underpinned foundation? It can be argued that those with a focused knowledge base have the potential for increased career progression compared with those who have taken the work-based route. The deeper understanding in the student (in this case the student-teacher) encourages them to innovate, to compare and to contrast, to unlock and deploy the knowledge with which their career has been front-loaded.

In comparison, the teacher with on-the-job training may learn exclusively in the context in which they have been trained. Although that gets them off to a very strong start, after a while it may become a limitation, as their practice might be inadequately theorised.

In short, although some aspects of tacit learning can only be learned on the job, that doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the most effective route.

The ETF’s Teach Too programme is all about developing FE’s industrial relevance through collaboration between FE sector providers and employers. A Teach Too organisational development project at University College Birmingham gathered representatives from industry sectors to meet the college’s academic teams. This collaborative research identified emerging themes, challenges and digital advances that would inform the curriculum content.

These included anything from the fact that the beauty therapy industry is rapidly evolving into more aesthetic practices involving needling, fillers and other non-invasive, non-surgical procedures, to the idea that the catering industry is readying itself for a fundamental movement towards veganism and allergen awareness.

The research also emphasised the importance of employer contribution in developing curricula and ensuring that the institution is responding rapidly to make adjustments to the physical and digital learning environments.

A focus on CPD and building, as well as maintaining, expertise among FE teachers is crucial, and will need to be made a priority in these tight financial times. But how can that be ensured? For anyone working at the chalkface, arguably the organisation that drives a change in focus faster than any other is Ofsted. While the quality of vocational education is being inspected, the routes that are being taken to ensure that the content of industrial teaching and learning is fit for purpose are not. Should the provision of CPD in FE settings, and particularly the structures that support vocational staff to keep up to date, be more of a focus?

According to a spokesman for the inspectorate, when inspectors visit a college or provider, they “will be checking that leaders and managers are continuously developing teachers, trainers and assessors’ subject expertise and pedagogical knowledge, so that they are able to deliver high-quality education and training, in line with the curriculum. That curriculum should include the most useful content, taught in a way that allows all learners to gain the intended knowledge, skills and behaviours, and progress successfully.”

However, he adds: “It is up to leaders and managers to determine how they do this.”

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

This article originally appeared in the 9 August 2019 issue under the headline “How can we keep FE up to date?”

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