Bespoke courses for every student;FE Focus;Social Inclusion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
Helen Hague introduces a three-page report on projects designed to ensure lifelong learning is really for all

HERE'S a poser for future students taking a National Vocational Qualification in learning philosophies in further education towards the millennium: define the difference between widening participation and inclusive learning in one sentence.

Answer: "widening participation gets people into an institution, inclusive learning is what they do when they get there". If the latest Further Education Funding Council-funded initiative to transform the way students learn takes root you'd be right. Up to a point.

Inclusive learning is all about matching students' learning needs to the environment they are being taught in - and it works on a number of levels - from learner and tutor through to learner and institution.

It is not a piecemeal pick-and-mix philosophy - and the Association of Colleges is convinced it can help to transform every student's learning for the better. It has at its centre a match between each learner's needs and what is provided by the college.

The first pound;1 million stage of the Quality Initiative has already borne fruit. After a competitive bidding round, 94 colleges were split up into nine groups to formulate and test out ideas and materials.

These included understanding and managing the individual learner, looking at how systems are organised, analysing culture and change; and promoting quality assurance. The materials they developed are now being presented and explained to other colleges.

In each group a college which had already worked in the terrain took the lead. But, this being FE, it was a learning experience for all according to Richard Chambers, vice-principal at Lewisham College, which took the lead in organisational change.

At the south London college, inclusive learning is already underway. Older, more experienced students act as "study buddies" or peer mentors to those new to college learning. Peer appraisal was used to develop materials.

"We opened ourselves up, and I think the level of honesty achieved was quite unusual. Teachers and managers would present their concerns to colleagues from other colleges, who would ask very hard questions. Hard scrutiny can be constructive and positive."

Lewisham is a heavily vocational college and has learned from experience that students who need basic skills can be reluctant to sign up for such courses.

In a college which is serious about offering inclusive learning, this barrier can be overcome. If people signing up for catering or construction need basic skills too, the curriculum can be changed to accommodate it.

As Richard Chambers puts it: "The teachers have to be good at dealing with basic skills needs as they are delivering a vocational curriculum". The college's support structures can help keep students motivated as well as responding to literacy and numeracy needs.

The days "when if you couldn't hack it at level 2 there was nothing else for you within the college" are long gone at Lewisham. It runs level 1 and pre-level 1 courses, equivalent to GCSE grades D-G, for students who need more support. And there are progression routes in horticulture, catering and performing arts for students with learning difficulties fresh out of programmes designed to promote independent living skills.

Carol Gibson, principal at Oldham College, is an enthusiast for inclusive learning. She believes matching the needs and aspirations of individual learners with what the college can provide can revolutionise teaching.

By "matching", she means "moving away from planning learning for the whole class and instead meeting a wide variety of learning needs. Some people are visual learners so they need diagrams."

The screening test for full-time students helps tutors identify individual learning needs. As well as checking literacy and numeracy skills it indicates which learning style is most effective for each student.

New technology developments are already transforming the way learning is managed at Oldham. Students have an account on the college intranet and they can log on at any terminal in the college or at learning centres not on the campus to pick up work and resources. Students with mobility problems can work from home and come in to the college only for occasional tutorials.

For Carol Gibson inclusive learning is about "bringing every single resource in the college to bear in creating the right learning experience". And technology can play a pivotal role.

"The only way you can create individually tailored learning programmes for each student is through a technological tracking system, enabling tutors to put quality time in with students and provide you with reports and print-outs."

The second phase of the Inclusive Learning Initiative, costing pound;2m, is now under way. Colleges will be working on the resource materials with FEFC-trained staff. Teachers, managers, support staff and technicians are all included in a project aimed at improving quality across the sector. With this kind of initiative, no one should be left out.

The FEFC is expecting to see colleges hire more staff with professional skills to meet the needs of a wider range of learners. The learner, of course, has to be at the heart of all this. Once inside the college gates, those wooed back to learn have to be convinced its worthwhile to knuckle down and get qualified.

It is not surprising then that, as the FEFC circular puts it: "Improvements in retention and achievement rates will be a particular focus of activity" in the coming months.

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