Student feedback shapes FE's future

John Berkeley

We should listen more to what young people have to say about their education and training. If we encourage them to make suggestions for improvement and act decisively on the results, we have a tool to promote change and raise standards.

This is the central message of a new publication exploring the untapped potential of learner feedback. The study brings together a wide range of perspectives from education, employment and the community.

While it focuses particularly on apprentices and other work-based learners, this guide to best practice applies equally to schools and colleges.

Indeed, the Office for Standards in Education offers clear evidence that good feedback is a key feature of effective school improvement. Such schools seek the views of young people and act on them. At a time of curriculum and qualification reform, with new vocational programmes for 14 to 19-year-olds, there has never been a greater need for effective feedback to make sure that education and training are truly fit for purpose and that changes in policy and practice take full account of the views of the individual.

For far too long, feedback from students and apprentices meant little more than inviting completion of so-called "happiness sheets", with minimal impact on quality improvement. However, times have changed. Although many providers have yet to implement effective ways of gathering and using learner feedback, its importance is acknowledged, in the words of the Adult Learning Inspectorate's chief inspector David Sherlock, as "a cornerstone of self-assessment and subsequent development planning".

Student feedback has more to offer than mere simplistic indices of learner satisfaction, valuable though these are in recognising progress. Used effectively, it has much wider potential for development. If we can encourage learners to play an active part in such schemes and demonstrate that their suggestions bring lasting changes, we can help to build confidence and promote active participation. Well-constructed, anonymous surveys can help to give vulnerable young people a voice.

Only learners can say whether education and training is fulfilling their needs and expectations. Only they can tell us how they feel about our efforts to help them learn.

However, gathering and processing feedback can be costly and time-consuming. It is not something to be considered lightly and, for some, can represent a major logistical challenge.

It makes sound economic sense, and is good management practice, to seek this information. With a little imagination and ingenuity, the feedback can be used as part of the learning programme itself. In England, the revised Common Inspection Framework to be used in schools, colleges and training centres puts much more emphasis on the impact of quality improvement.

Learners are uniquely placed to provide evidence of such improvements.

Indeed, they are frequently the only reliable source.

In Norway, an online system of learner feedback is now obligatory for all pupils in Years 7 to 10 and is also being used on a voluntary basis for apprentices. Each learner is given a user name and password to protect anonymity.

Providers can access their own results for discussion with the student council. However, the national results will also be available online as part of a wider effort to promote democracy and extend the influence that learners can have on the system, as well as contributing to quality evaluation and development.

With computer-based systems now being developed to enable successive elements of data from an individual learner to be held together, without compromising anonymity, feedback looks set to become an increasingly important feature of education and training.

John Berkeley is associate fellow in the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Warwick and was a member of the Tomlinson Working Group.

"Listening to the work-based learner: unlocking the potential of apprentice feedback" is a DfES publication. To obtain a copy, contact

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