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The fountain of knowledge

It's a tall order: preparing armies of staff for a new qualification. So the authorities are relying on the cascade model. Neil Merrick explains.

Just about everybodyagrees that colleges should be striving to improve the skills of young people, but what about the staff who are expected to teach them? The response of most lecturers preparing to help raise skill levels among teenagers taking A-levels and GNVQs is that they urgently need to refresh their own key skills - preferably by gaining the same qualification that will be available to students from September.

Lesley Dee, director of a project at the University of Cambridge studying the needs of school and college examination centres, says: "The message is clear that the majority of teachers recognise the need to possess the same qualification as their students - at least to the level to which they areexpected to teach."

The new key skills qualification - which covers communication, application of number and information technology - will be available in all colleges and schools as part of a new post-16 curriculum. While ministers declined to make it compulsory, most centres will be under pressure to offer it. Colleges in particular have been given a strong financial incentive to provide it alongside revised A-level and GNVQ programmes.

The Cambridge study is part of a three-year key skills support programme run by the Further Education Development Agency which aims to ensure that there are sufficient staff in colleges with the required skills to guarantee the qualification is a success.

This month, the agency is unveiling its key skills task force, an army of about 120 specialists who have themselves been trained by agency advisers. They will be expected to go into colleges and schools and train their colleagues before September.

Deirdre Kimbell, head of the agency's key skills support programme, says that most of the trainers already have experience of teaching the subject but needed to find out more about the qualification before they could tour colleges and schools.

"Some are teachers, including key skills co-ordinators. Others are LEA advisers or consultants," she says. "Some are experts in particular skills, such as application of number."

There is no comparable scheme in Wales, where the Welsh Further Education Funding Council is still talking to colleges about ways of supporting the training. In the long run, however, there is nothing to stop any teacher from trying to gain the new qualification. Although they have already had the chance to gain practtioner awards, it is not known exactly how many staff have qualifications that will assist them in introducing the new course to stduents.

The Cambridge study, which initially covered 55 centres, found levels of confidence were highest among staff involved in GNVQs, which already cover key skills. There are concerns that some A-level teachers may find it harder to adapt. "Where colleges and schools have experience of teaching GNVQs, they have a wealth of experience and knowledge," adds Lesley Dee.

Further research will focus on the advantages of integrating key skills into A-level and GNVQ programmes rather than delivering them as a separate qualification. In the meantime, staff appear to be most concerned about the practicalities of tracking students and making sure the same key skills are not delivered two or even three times over in different subjects. "All centres need support on assessment and student tracking," says Deirdre Kimbell.

The task force is using the cascade model to ensure that training for the qualification reaches the widest possible number of staff. Those lecturers who receive the training pass on their new skills to colleagues when they return to college. The same model is successfully used in the support programme for GNVQs where key skills are part of the course.

"We are very keen to get the support out into local areas," explains Ms Kimbell. "Staff all need support but in different ways. We believe that this is an effective way of getting the message to them."

A similar approach is beingtaken by Learning For Work, the organisation responsible for supporting key-skills training among work-based trainees.

Specialist Learning For Work trainers are running programmes on the new qualification, which is effectively compulsory for people taking modern apprenticeships and national traineeships. Staff on the training programmes will receive a package which they can later use to train their colleagues.

Simon Shaw, a director at Learning For Work, says workplace trainers are generally familiar with teaching key skills but must find out about units in the new qualification and methods of external assessment.

Staff who cannot be included in any training cascade will be able to find out about the qualification through distance-learning. "The way key-kills training has been done in the past has not always been very effective," says Mr Shaw. "We want to build on the good work which has been done and ensure trainees get key skills which are properly integrated into their training programmes."

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