Another View - Access denied as moderation meddling takes the fizz out of FE

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Comment - Stephen Jones

Yippee! It was the Champagne moment of the day, and corks were popping in my head as soon as the email popped on to my screen. Its subject box read: "the new access course documentation has arrived".

"What would it involve?" I asked myself. After all, the elves in the validating agency's grotto had been working on this paperwork all year. Perhaps it had been trimmed back, rationalised and generally made more lecturer-friendly.

Perhaps, but by now you may have detected irony in my tone - sarcasm even. In which case, well spotted! Because when I did open the email I found . but hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's journey back ten years to my first involvement with access courses to put that email into perspective.

It was around the turn of the millennium and my college, like many general FE colleges, was getting out of A-levels. It had been the staple of my teaching, but now I was to move on to access - the one-year preparatory courses for adult students wanting to go to university. These were, then at least, a different sort of qualification. There was no national set-up, and courses were accredited by local consortia, which allowed teachers a large element of autonomy.

You were encouraged to devise your own curriculum and write your own units. Courses were overseen by a local validating agency (known as an AVA) and one of its external moderators came and met teachers and students two or three times a year. On the final visit, the moderator would come for a whole day, look at every student's portfolio and discuss with the teaching team any improvements deemed necessary.

But gradually, things began to change. The AVAs amalgamated and became bigger and more remote. Teacher-devised units were discouraged. There was more bureaucracy and less personal contact. The moderators had more colleges to deal with and so started to spend less time looking at students' work, sampling folders rather than looking at them all.

Around four years ago these changes went up a gear. The Government had "discovered" access. "What?" it said. "A whole raft of qualifications that we don't micro-manage? How can this be?"

It set about changing all that, systemising and rationalising like there was no tomorrow. The AVAs were reduced further in number, the local element slipping away. Teacher autonomy went out of the window, too. In 2008 the new Access Diploma was launched: one system, one qualification, across the whole country. To this ideal vast forests were sacrificed. Indeed, it is in the paperwork - particularly that imposed upon those at grass-roots level - that "progress" towards the current system can be best traced.

Back in 2000, feedback on assignments was given to students on the work itself. Then someone thought a standard cover sheet would be a good idea. This was what it said it was - one sheet, with three sections for teacher comments: what was done well, what was done less well and actions needed for future improvement.

A year down the line and one page became two. Then the AVAs started to take notice, insisting that other details also be included. The complete unit brief must be there, plus all the assessment criteria for the unit. When a passmeritdistinction system was introduced, grade descriptors were added. This meant the cover sheet expanded to three, sometimes four pages.

Which brings us full circle back to that email and its cheerful announcement of yet another new set of cover sheets. To no one's surprise it's expanded again. At a quick count it's now two pages for the assignment brief, two for the feedback and one for the unit summary. If the unit is assessed by more than one task - as many are - there are additional sheets to be completed for each of them.

Sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that you're a teacher and not a clerk. And did I say Champagne earlier? Truth is it's all gone a little flat.

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