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Approval makes all the difference

Judging by some newspaper headlines during the past few months, further education must be in some sort of crisis.

Successive reports by the Office for Standards in Education criticised first the quality of teaching on adult basic skills programmes and then courses run by providers of initial teacher education.

Depressing? You could say so, although there were also positives to be drawn from both reports.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, news emerged suggesting things may not be nearly so bad as they seem. According to a Learning and Skills Council survey, 94 per cent of learners are satisfied with their experience in college or with other learning providers.

How most private enterprises, let alone politicians, must dream of gaining such a high approval rating. Perhaps teachers and their support staff are doing something right after all.

It is easy to forget that, up until September 2001, FE lecturers were not required to be trained teachers. Since then, initial teacher education courses have expanded steadily as colleges train up new staff, along with more experienced lecturers who lack teaching qualifications.

New courses leading to qualifications for teachers of adult literacy and numeracy have only really got underway in the past 12 months, making it unlikely that the impact would have been noticed by Ofsted's inspectors, who carried out their research during the first part of 2003.

Accurate figures on how many lecturers hold teaching qualifications are hard to come by but, in January 2002, the Further Education National Training Organisation estimated that about two-thirds were trained teachers.

The Government wants 90 per cent of full-time and 60 per cent of part-time lecturers to hold teaching qualifications by 20056 - an important step on the road to achieving a fully-qualified profession by 2010.

While such targets may seem challenging, especially when it comes to training part-time teachers, there is no doubt that colleges are investing increasing sums in workforce development.

Indeed, the improved pay now available to lecturers, along with the expansion of initial training and continuing professional development, are helping to make this a golden age for teachers, not just in FE but throughout the learning and skills sector.

A Fento helpline continues to receive calls from people eager to become teachers. The opportunity for in-service initial teacher education is seen as a positive feature of the sector, enabling people with valuable vocational skills to work with learners from the outset, while also undertaking training.

Although it is not certain whether the Government will take up Fento's suggestion of a probationary year for newly-qualified teachers, its consultation paper, published in the light of Ofsted's report, suggests staff taking up posts in the learning and skills sector will in future receive much stronger initial support.

Mentoring by experienced colleagues will provide new teachers with the sort of induction that has been commonplace in schools for years. But it is also vital that initial training continues to recognise the fact that learning and skills teachers are drawn from a wide variety of academic and vocational backgrounds.

During the next few months, Fento will be holding further discussions with providers of teacher education and the Department for Education and Skills over issues such as how practice and theory can be integrated better into courses, as well as the common themes involved in teaching 14 to 16-year-olds in schools and colleges.

But these will in no way be the only issues facing Fento in what is likely to be the last year in its present form. In November, it was one of six organisations to submit a joint proposal to the Sector Skills Development Agency for a lifelong learning sector skills council.

It is widely recognised by employers and learning providers that the lifelong learning SSC is the most important of all the 23 SSCs due to be in operation by the end of 2004.

The council must help to raise skill levels among staff in further and higher education, work-based learning, community-based learning, youth work, libraries and other information services. For the first time, the skill needs of employers and their staff will be examined from the perspective of a wider sector.

Equally, it is through the efforts of teachers and support staff in the learning and skills sector that the UK workforce as a whole will gain new skills and knowledge.

A heavy responsibility, but certainly not one that should be beyond a sector with an approval rating of more than 90 per cent.

David Hunter is chief executive of Fento

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