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Crash course in life-enhancement

Ann Nicholls discovers how the woolly catch-all 'general studies' courses have evolved into something far more rigorous and muscular - involving anything from skincare to disaster training.

In the halcyon days when education was all about broadening the mind instead of preparing people for work, something called "general studies" was an important part of the curriculum. It took many forms, from encouraging reluctant engineers to fill in forms or write poetry, to trying to get MEAT I (first-year butchers, as in Tom Sharpe's Wilt) to read The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The assumption was that "we" (ie the educated people) needed to impart "culture" to the masses who would much rather have spent their time watching Match of the Day or gazing inside the bonnet of a car. It was all very patronising and not very student-centred, although its principles were sound.

So whatever happened to general studies? It still lurks in some colleges, but its nature has changed. The hard economic reality of post-incorporation means that few further education colleges can afford to indulge in "broadening the mind" unless they can guarantee funding. One way is to devise a programme which can be accredited in some form, which is what Harlow College has done with its Personal Enhancement Programme. The PEP (as it is known) is, in essence, a glorified general studies programme linked to a record of achievement for all full-time students. But with accreditation through the Essex Open College Network, the scheme has attracted more kudos and is more relevant to students.

The year starts off with a Freshers Fair at the beginning of October where various organisations set up stalls in the college hall. The students union offers a Welcome Pack and discount cards; Harlow Voluntary Services are there, as are the banks, building societies and organisations like Amnesty International and the Air Training Corps. The rest of the year's programme is a mixture of teacher-directed classroom sessions, elective subjects, plus a set of individual "personal challenges". This might involve some voluntary work or a sporting challenge. One student decided to teach life saving, another learned sign language for the deaf, another started a chess club in the college and one canoed for England. The aim is not to stuff empty minds with politics and culture, but to encourage students to go out and do things.

"When the students realise they are expected to do everything themselves and take charge of their own learning instead of being spoon-fed, they are a bit stunned," says PEP programme co-ordinator Dee Clarke.

"Many come to us thinking they are getting a repeat of personal and social education in school, but what we offer is radically different because it is student-centred and activity-based. The Personal Enhancement Programme is much more sophisticated than general studies because it isn't tutor-led and there is little didactic teaching."

The annual programme, which involves students for up to one and a half hours per week, is set out as a series of weekly "learning outcomes". So students should be able to manage their own study time, understand the principles of health education, be aware of work opportunities overseas and demonstrate knowledge of how to organise a charity fair.

The involvement of outside organisations is crucial. Last month featured a health fair in the college hall with both students and community groups making contributions. Hair and beauty therapy students ran presentations on hairdressing and skin-care, another group ran MOT body fitness tests, some care students talked about disability awareness and a performing arts group put on a programme with a health theme. Then there were stalls run by groups like the Well Woman Clinic and road safety officers.

One particularly interesting session involves the co-operation of the emergency services (fire, police, ambulance, etc) in a mock-up of various hazardous scenarios in a warehouse. It's a bit like a training school for trainee secret agents or the SAS. As students enter the warehouse they are confronted with various situations which require action. In one corner there might be a "body" which needs to be dealt with; students could be approached by a "drug addict" (played by police officers) asking for money, or they might have to spot the hazards on a makeshift building site. There is even a simulated fire with real smoke. Around the warehouse are emergency telephones and various pieces of equipment like fire extinguishers or first-aid kits. The idea is to put students in real situations to see how they react.

Dee Clarke describes the administration needed to make the programme work as "a horrendous organisational nightmare". Putting on the fairs alone involves hours of work putting up displays and liaising with community organisation. "You need energy, enthusiasm and dedication." The scheme is run by a team of nine staff in diverse areas from engineering to art and design. "They must be committed to making the programme work, not simply people with spare hours on their timetable to fill," says Dee.

But what makes the PEP scheme particularly attractive is that it is accredited through the open college network and therefore receives funding. Students have to keep a logbook and portfolio and must have signatures from tutors as they complete activities; it is very rigorously assessed. The college is also seeking ways of using the PEP programme as evidence towards core skills units for GNVQ and other courses. Managing a chess club involves communication and planning skills, for instance. By the end of the programme, students should have a portfolio with certificates, log books, letters, references and assignments.

Students are graded on their portfolio and achievements on a scale of 2 to 4. (There are no students on grade 1).

To get a grade 4 students have to demonstrate outstanding leadership qualities, a grade 3 requires "initiative", and students who have merely participated will be awarded a grade 2. "The Open College Network requires rigorous assessment and it is essential to have clear aims and objectives; we had to made various changes to the programme before it could be accredited, " says Dee. "Having accreditation has made a huge difference to students' motivation. It is also very important for university entrance."

There are other benefits from the PEPs programme apart from the personal ones the students derive from it. In Harlow and the surrounding area there is considerable competition between schools and colleges. So the college is aware that it needs to offer the kind of pastoral support that parents like in order to provide a well-rounded education in order to remain competitive.

* Information from Dee Clarke(PEPs tutor) or Jackie Weatherburn (assistant principal), Harlow College, Harlow, Essex

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