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Steady nerve in the face of competition

Staff at the Wirral Metropolitan College must use the recovery phase to do some radical thinking, says Rob Norris, its director of curriculum and planning.

As the one director to remain in the same post through the skills audit, he has a clear view of the potential for change at the prospect of the Learning and Skills Council in April next year. "There is a danger that we will be acquiescent and see our markets slip away to our competitors," he says. This strikes a chord with the rest of the curriculum team, who emphasise the need to be steady and keep their sense of purpose in the face of serious private competitors.

Curriculum providers, particularly in areas such as engineering, have seen private providers come and go, investing heavily in a niche market and then failing. "We have to keep a broad focus, which may not be cost effective but is nevertheless necessary to ensure that the range of community needs is met," says Norris. "What we can provide is quality."

Sara Nicholson, director of quality and performance review, agrees. For her, it is how quality is ensured that matters. Ray Dowd, the principal, identified two issues vital for recovery: a curriculum-led cultur and the promotion of quality and performance. To achieve this, Nicholson insists there has to be radical thinking on quality and performance.

When appointed, Nicholson was stunned to find there was no system of lesson observation, no staff appraisal - "That would have made the skills audit so much easier" - and no support system to monitor student achievement. "Some staff did not even know how to register and monitor student attendance properly," she says.

No individual was to blame, but the old centralised system militated against good communication and development.

"We now have a performance and appraisal framework and we need to embed teacher observation into it," says Bob Slusarchuk, the staff development manager working with Nicholson.

Staff who were suspicious of appraisal are now demanding that very thing for training purposes. "Our biggest achievement is to reduce the fear. Staff see peer assessment and lesson observation as part of a mature approach to their work," he says.

At the same time, staff and students who in former times saw the private sector as a threat are looking for ways to work in partnership across wider community interests.

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