At Warrington and Vale Royal College, we are seeing the dividends that love and ambition bring. Dividends in hard data: significantly improved GCSE English results. Meanwhile, our collaborative work has created a more positive culture around English at the college.
We work with hundreds of young people who find themselves in the demoralising situation of having to retake GCSE English (and usually maths, too). Our students represent typical aspects of what we see in students who attend FE colleges and are enrolled on retake classes. We work with students who have experienced years of "failing" in English. They are often steeped in low self-esteem, driven by resistance towards any form of institution, and often socially and economically marginalised.
Our college cohort of English retakers are in fact in the lowest quartile of disadvantage of FE providers in England.
The last thing students want to do when they sign up to study plumbing, motor-vehicle maintenance or hairdressing is an English course. So English teachers are faced with classes of resistance from day one. It is hard, gritty work. It is blisteringly important work, of course. We change lives and help young people to move on. We work with them, support them and, eventually, win many of them around, so they bother enough about themselves to actually begin to care.
Then they begin to enjoy a different kind of success. For the past two years at the college we have been actively promoting reading, the major element that we need to work on with our young people. Through the accelerated reading scheme we learned that many of our students, although they are 16 or 17 years old, actually have a reading age of eight or nine.
Here are a few of the approaches we have tried:
- Accelerated reading (AR) scheme: Students on vocational courses sign up to the AR programme, which is now in its third year. The hair and beauty salons, for example, are filled with students reading. These students participate in the AR programme by reading 20 minutes per session every week, and then ‘quizzing’ after each book they read, the results of which ‘measure’ their reading progress.
- The Reading Ahead Challenge run by the Reading Agency: Last year we got the gold award due to our success in getting our students to read six books each throughout the year and keep diaries about them.
- Pop-up storytelling: In our learning resource centre, volunteers read to, or with, students on their lunchbreaks.
- Collaborative projects: My team has worked with the art and catering and hospitality departments, where students have produced and exhibited fantastic artwork on the power of language. Wonderful cookbooks have been created where again students realise the power of words when writing recipes and describing food.
Results-wise, our students have improved massively, and we are 18 per cent above the provider-group average this year for GCSE A*-C grade achievement. We have plenty of great success stories here.
It is also pleasing that we have success with both male and female genders, again significantly above many other providers. It is noteworthy that our students seem to respond more positively to our approach, if you compare the marked difference in progress that our students make compared with other providers across vocational areas.
This is indeed a story about success as a result of our "belt and braces" approach. We have a strong team of English teachers who work with incredible dedication and determination, alongside positive collaborative working with vocational teachers, our brilliant LRC manager, support staff and external agencies. Together, all of us make that important difference, turn minds and encourage our students.
The big shift, the signal of our success, is when our students begin to bother about their reading and their writing skills; when they realise that, yes, they do matter. A lot.
Elizabeth Draper is director of English at Warrington and Vale Royal College