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'Teach students to be brilliant, not to pass exams'

Being highly skilled and achieving a qualification is not the same thing, writes Bedford College principal Ian Pryce

Ian Pryce: there's more to education than qualifications

Being highly skilled and achieving a qualification is not the same thing, writes Bedford College principal Ian Pryce

Working class kids who didn’t enjoy school used to get one piece of careers advice: “Get a trade.” That doesn’t score very high on the new Gatsby Standards for careers advice, but it still has merit. There is lots of evidence that being really skilled at something is good for your self-confidence, happiness and employability.

Sadly being “really good at something” isn’t the same as achieving modern vocational qualifications. Too often, we have seen our job as colleges as getting students to achieve, rather than making people highly skilled (a much higher standard). Some years ago, I asked our hair and beauty team how many treatments and how many different types of person a student would need to treat in order to be a superb hairdresser or beautician. I kept getting the numbers that got you the qualification. When I said surely a student who knew how to treat males and females, or people of different ages or with particular medical conditions would be better. They agreed but were unsure why we would bother if it wasn’t needed to pass.


Read more: 'Work experience: Is it really worthwhile?'

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Vocational expertise

As funding has diminished, students spend less time than ever getting to be really good at the thing they love. The correct demands to work on maths and English skills, the insistence we cover British values and Prevent, and do work experience even when you already work, make acquiring vocational expertise even harder. The funding envelope has shrunk as these demands have increased and we know which bit of the study programme has been squeezed as a result.

Our communities want people who are really good at something. Our curriculum should therefore start with the knowledge, skills and qualities a really good painter, plumber, mechanic, engineer, care worker, beauty therapist, dancer or fitness instructor should possess. We should then add to this ideal the personal development that should run alongside so the individual personally benefits from their skill, not just their employer and society. That will mean core maths and English skills at least.

From my discussions with students (or second hand via staff) they seem to value in order:

  • Their main programme.
  • The expert teachers.
  • Real projects and competitions.
  • One-to-one time with a tutor.
  • Maths and English (they recognise the value even if they don’t enjoy it).
  • Work experience.
  • Enrichment.
  • Group tutorials (especially preachy stuff like values and Prevent).

This seems a sensible prioritisation.

If we take it seriously this would mean:

  1. Developing a main programme that sets out the hours you need to put in to be highly skilled not just pass the course.
  2. Maximising time supervised by subject expert teachers.
  3. Ensuring we secure lots of projects and competitions in every area.
  4. Focusing tutors on the one-to-one element of their role.
  5. Adding maths and English hours on top, or taking away the hours from things they rank lower, not taking hours away from things they rank higher.
  6. Only doing work experience where it is really useful.
  7. Focusing enrichment on things that develop the individual – perhaps sport/outdoor education/public services (building resilience), arts (to make students articulate and rounded), volunteering (creating good citizens).
  8. Doing the preachy stuff via technology to incur very little cost per student hour or via social activity eg making sure homogenous groups like construction or hairdressing mix with very different students.

The first point needs unpacking a bit. If you want to be a great dancer you won’t be one by simply doing a 600 hour study programme. You might need 15 hours per week on your main qualification but also a personal fitness programme that you follow at the weekends and during the week. There might be dance films or web materials you should be accessing to support certain elements as they are taught. You might need to practise dance on your own for an additional 10 hours per week. Musicians will need to practise above and beyond their taught sessions. Sports students surely have to keep fit, follow a personal fitness regime etc. We should describe programmes in this way, a true programme of study, then separately work out how much of it can be counted for funding purposes, the funded programme of study.

How to be brilliant

There doesn’t seem to be much specific research in FE on how to be brilliant. I might be missing something but we don’t even seem to have structured things like the hugely popular (and effective) “Couch to 5K” apps. Surely we could be producing “Slouch to £30k” apps?

There is good research out there in other fields, from the over-simplistic “10,000 hours” rule to the work on the science of expertise by Anders Ericsson, perhaps best summarised in his book with Robert Pool Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things.

We have to do better for our students and help them become brilliant, not just qualified. I am a big fan of WorldSkills, not so much for the competitions (fantastic though they are) but because students can be measured against globally agreed standards. We therefore know what “world-class” looks like, and we have national leads that help our elite get there and beyond. That is what we need to capture, disseminate and embed everywhere. This surely is the route to esteem, for our students, our staff and our sector.

Ian Pryce is chief executive of Bedford College

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