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Basic skills, basic needs

Functional skills is not the sexiest of subjects. In a rom-com it would play the best friend; not the star turn, but an essential player whose job it is to help tell the story.

Most students are in my classes because they haven't achieved an A*-C in GCSE English. Many have come to college hoping to avoid the classroom time that they haven't embraced in the past. There's a pressure to keep every session as snappy and creative as possible in order to keep students interested, or at least keep them turning up.

But we are approaching the dullest weeks in the academic calendar for functional skills teachers. No more inventive lessons to fire up dormant imaginations - the time for education is over. Now it's all about hot-housing the ones who still haven't passed their tests and shoving them though resits.

When the reason for their failure is a student's reluctance to show up, it seems futile entering into a game of "catch the student" at this late stage. But there's no place for logic when the dark clouds of end-of-year achievement stats begin to gather. We leave messages on their phones. We copy everyone who has ever taught them into emails, urging colleagues to post their charges through our staffroom doors. I've even hung out of a fifth-floor window and fishwifed across the car park: "I can see you hiding under the minibus, Reece! Don't make me come down there!"

Occasionally, small tutor groups or one-to-one tuition are what a student needs to finally realise how literacy and numeracy underpins all other learning. They start asking questions, making an effort and give themselves permission to learn. All that irritation we feel about their year-long campaign of indifference evaporates.

There are other students for whom repeated resits are a pointless exercise in undermining confidence. These are the students who scraped through the level below with every ounce of luck on their side.

Then there's Claire. Claire is in her 50s and she's in a group of adults who have complex lives or additional learning needs. Claire is kind, funny and so well-groomed that she always looks as if she's on her way to a job interview. She has many qualities that make her a valuable member of the community. But she can't read or write.

Most people in this group have made great strides throughout the year, in their skills and in their confidence. All have worked hard and most will pass their exam, but I doubt that daily tutoring would make much difference in the way Claire interprets letters and words.

The group's key worker is an insightful and relentlessly positive bloke who calmly supports some of the most chaotic lives and complex personalities. He took me to one side this week to question the ethics of asking Claire to sit the exam she's entered for. I suddenly felt like a monster for even considering putting her through an experience that she would find at best frustrating, at worst traumatic.

Being reminded of my duty to Claire provided a much-needed dose of reality. At this time of year, it's easy to forget that we have a wider responsibility to our students than just getting them through exams.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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