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Students fall at key skills hurdle

FEFC report highlights reasons why colleges are struggling to deliver key skills. Steve Hook reports.

SEVERAL hurdles remain to be jumped in the race to improve the teaching of key skills in colleges, according to one of the last reports of the outgoing Further Education Funding Council.

The report, by the council's colleges inspectorate, says a common problem is lack of motivation by students to take key skills seriously as part of their studies.

In some colleges, it says, this is aggravated by insufficient co-ordination and support for key skills delivery, late implementation of monitoring systems and a "slow start to key skills assessment by some teachers".

Colleges are under increasing pressure to deliver on all six key skills, which are defined as problem-solving, working with numbers, improving own learning, application of number, information technology and communications. Some national training organisations have called for the abolition of some or all key skills as a requirement for government funding of training placements.

The motivation problem among students is partly due to colleges' failure to assess students' key skill levels before programmes are implemented.

"In some cases," says the report, "key skill levels are not established sufficiently early in the course, with the result that some students are repeating what they have done at school and become demotivated at the outset.

"The need to offer the new basic skills qualification has placed considerable pressure on colleges to provide an effective structure and resources. In many colleges, additional staffing resources and accommodation have become necessary."

Methods for delivering key skills vary around the country. Some colleges have specific key skills sessions with students to ake sure all areas are covered. Others attempt to cover all six areas by incorporating them into each subject. Many colleges have reported that it is easier to motivate students in key skills when they form part of a chosen subject. Key skills co-ordinators have been appointed in many colleges. In some colleges, there are separate co-ordinators for the key skills of communications, application of number and information technology, which are mandatory.

The increasing range of subjects which students are required to tackle under Curriculum 2000 has placed further pressure on key skills, says the report.

The introduction of Curriculum 2000 itself has caused excessive workloads, according to colleges examined in the research. "Students' response to key skills varies," says the report. "Some appear to be unclear about the purpose of key skills. A number of students are questioning the relevance to their future career aims. Students in some colleges see them as an unnecessary burden when they are delivered through bolt-on sessions. Other students reported that they found key skills activities enjoyable."

The FEFC found there is widespread concern about the recognition key skills qualifications will have in industry.

"Colleges are concerned about the prospects of acceptance of key skills by universities and employers, despite the fact that it was employers' complaints which originally led to the development of the qualification. As yet, there are only anecdotal, but conflicting messages from both employers and higher education."

The report also says there needs to be "more coherence" in the 14 to 16 curriculum to make sure students can progress more smoothly to Curriculum 2000, and there needs to be more guidance in schools about the options for post-16 study.

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