FE colleges used to give students who did not achieve at school a real opportunity to turn things around. The chance of a vocational route suited to their interests and skills created an environment in which many thrived. For many students having to resit GCSE English, maths or both, this is no longer the case. Being forced back to a lesson they have just failed, are unlikely to pass in a year and which has little relevance to their course makes for unenthusiastic students – and lecturers. Lecturers are under pressure to perform when many agree with the students that no, they probably won’t pass, and yes, GCSE isn’t relevant to their main course. GCSE resits are not working and are putting excessive pressure on students and lecturers.
Many of the students have little motivation and know how easy it is to play the system. There is not much effort needed. It is pretty much a case of turn up and shut up – just attend regularly and sit the exam to secure their place and funding for their main course. If they fail to get a C grade? They just do the same each academic year for the length of their course. The usual motivations such as needing a C grade for university seem irrelevant as few are looking to go into higher education.
The removal of functional skills in some FE colleges means more low-level students in classes and many students for whom GCSE is not the right fit. This, alongside high levels of additional needs, results in some very reluctant students. Lecturers are often disillusioned and overworked. They have to prepare for a wide range of abilities, deal with additional needs and stay positive in a negative environment. For the lecturer, the job becomes at best difficult, and at worst impossible.
‘Consuming, confusing and exhausting’
The added pressure on lecturers to deal with high percentages of additional needs such as dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD and ASD can be overwhelming. The preparation and classroom management involved to accommodate so many different needs is time consuming, confusing and exhausting – yet fundamentally important. Simply having the wrong colour hand-out can stop a student participating in a lesson.
This places tremendous pressure on a lecturer who may have little knowledge or training about the issues students are facing. These students need so much more than a pass – and they are not even getting that – with less than 30 per cent obtaining A* to C in English or maths last year. Pass rates look likely to fall again this year as most students take the new specification GCSE for the first time. On the other end of the scale are the students who are capable of making the grade. They rarely get much attention because the lecturer’s focus is needed elsewhere.
Nobody is arguing the importance of a qualification in English and maths but the current system is failing students and teaching staff. Often a lesson is less about teaching and more about behavioural management or counselling – without the training. Many lecturers spend more time sorting out emotional wellbeing and additional educational needs than teaching.
‘Soul-destroying and demoralising’
These are just some of the problems facing FE English and maths lecturers daily. It is soul-destroying to spend hours planning lessons for students who do not want to be there and will fail the exam. It is demoralising to know that whatever is prepared, the outcome is pretty much the same – low-level disruption (at best), lack of input and little work produced.
There is a lot of despondency among lecturers of these subjects. As professionals they want to motivate and get the best out of their students, but for many their best will not get them a C grade. It is difficult for lecturers to know they are setting up so many of their students for failure.
There is a fast staff turnaround among these lecturers. Where’s the making a difference? The thrill of good results? Many GCSE lecturers use it as a stepping-stone – paying their dues in GCSE as they wait for an A-level vacancy or alternative position. Although they know they are fighting a losing battle, it does very little for anyone’s self-esteem when the exam results come through. Hopefully, recent calls for urgent reform of post-16 English and maths will be implemented and will accommodate the needs of the students – and the lecturers.