“The debate on education funding needs to move away from one about an abstract concept of equity to one of sufficiency, where schools and colleges have the money they need to do the job asked of them.”
That's what Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told the House of Commons this week.
Despite disgracefully insufficient funding, England’s colleges continue to work wonders for the three quarters of a million young people who study with us; providing valuable vocational training leading to high levels of employment, offering an unrivalled range of academic programmes, and of course doing our utmost to improve the basic skills of English and maths. But there’s no doubting our institutions are stretched and have little capacity to invest in innovation or to take risks by trying out untested approaches. That’s where charities and social enterprises are increasingly stepping in.
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I met Sarah Waite at a showcase of social enterprises recently and her initiative Get Further stood out to me because it is so clearly motivated by her belief that teaching can transform. You might expect that to be a given in education, but you’d be wrong.
Get Further matches students needing English or maths support with skilled, volunteer tutors to help them gain their key qualifications through a bespoke curriculum. The tutors are attracted to the role by the strong sense of social mission.
Sarah’s background both in policy and as a frontline maths teacher has given her “an appreciation of the size and scale of an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, as well as understanding the demands of delivering to students who often face wider challenges and sometimes have low motivation,” she says. “It’s such a shame that proper support for the English and maths policy wasn’t there from the word "go". Colleges are struggling with capacity and to compete with schools when it comes to pay. Innovative ideas are coming forward but often rely on people doing it off their own back. For me, working with Teach First and The Young Academy has provided invaluable start-up support.”
Funding teachers to develop ideas
The Young Academy, a programme to accelerate early-stage initiatives, has supported over sixty ventures. “FE seems to be left behind in the education system,” explains Tatevik Sargsyan, programme manager at the Young Foundation. “‘Get Further’ is working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds to build their knowledge, skills, and confidence in English and maths. Through their work, students will be able to achieve the grades to unlock other opportunities in their life.”
The charity SHINE, who fund teachers to develop ideas that improve core outcomes for disadvantaged students, have also taken an interest in our sector’s English provision, supporting my own project "Write On" since 2017, and in 2018 awarding a grant to Alice Eardley to run the sister project "Word On".
“We're aiming to help students develop their vocabularies with a view to supporting comprehension and developing the sophistication of their writing,” explains Alice, who is a nominee for this year’s Tes FE Teacher of the Year. “We wanted a ‘hook’ that takes advantage of online delivery so we're using immersive, 360-degree videos to introduce new words. The idea is that students will get a better sense of word meaning and usage if the new vocab is directly associated with images, actions, or facial expressions.”
Trying something new
Activate Learning, the college group where Alice teaches, enjoys some intimidatingly-impressive progress figures for English. I’m therefore encouraged to hear she shares my view that success can only come from trying something new.
“Experimentation is so important because the challenge is so huge - by the time they get to us students have been through years of English education and not got the results they wanted. They're demotivated and they often see college as a way of getting away from the aspects of formal education that didn't work for them. We can't then just continue with business as usual. The resits are still a relatively new challenge and I think we've got a responsibility to figure out how to teach them well.”
In case you’re wondering what funders are really looking for in applicants, I put the question to SHINE Chief Executive, Fiona Spellman: “The ‘x-factor’ for us,” she says, “is a teacher who has an innovative idea to inspire young people in new ways, or a teacher who has created a project that could potentially be scaled up to be delivered in other schools or colleges.”
SHINE’s 2019 Let Teachers Shine Competition is now open and I hope the many FE English and maths teachers currently nursing brilliant ideas in isolation will put in an application so that our sector can really show off what we can do with a bit of funding and support.
There is a bitter irony when a government that stood on a platform of social justice lets disadvantaged 16-19-year-olds fall off a cliff edge, but colleges and teachers can work with social enterprise and philanthropists to improve things for as many students as possible and shame those whose “conscious policy choice”, according to Robert Halfon, lies behind our underfunding.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE.
SHINE’s Let Teachers Shine competition offers up to £15,000 to teachers who have brilliant ideas to help disadvantaged children succeed in English, maths or science. Let Teachers Shine 2019 is open until 23 April. Find out more at www.shinetrust.org.uk/LTS2019