Don't let learning be a dog-and-pony show

12th December 2014 at 00:00
Adding extra certificates to further education qualifications was intended to boost employability - but it's often just hoop-jumping

When adults sign up to my English classes, they expect to improve their literacy skills. They know that the course will test their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. They know there will be an exam. What they don't know is that they will also receive certificates for two other qualifications that may or may not be relevant to them.

We have to deliver these qualifications, regardless of their value to students, because they come with extra government funding. Budgets are tight so every penny is worth fighting for.

So, as part of level 1 functional skills English, I also deliver two City amp; Guilds units. One is "English skills" and includes topics such as "using reading strategies" and "planning and organisation in writing". These are easy to embed. The other is "employability skills", which includes units on "contributing to a team" and "effective skills, qualities and attitudes for learning and work".

For some, being assessed on suitability for work may be of use - the younger adult learners searching for their first paid jobs certainly appreciate the certificate. But many of my students are older and already working. If you've been employed for two decades or more, you do not need a piece of paper to prove that you're prepared for a working day.

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), says: "There is a growing consensus that the current funding system is too driven by qualification outputs rather than by what motivates adults.

"There needs to be a balance between the motivations and needs of learners with the type of outcomes that the government can readily measure."

What does this mean for teachers? My courses are five hours a week for 15 weeks. Time is short, yet I have to embed two units into my teaching that require two portfolios of work to be submitted. Absenteeism (often for valid reasons such as jobs or childcare) can be an issue, as learners have to catch up so that I can produce a folder of their work as evidence.

If a learner fails the functional skills exam and returns to the class to repeat the course, that poses another problem. As that person has already achieved the two extra City amp; Guilds qualifications, I need to create special tasks and exercises so they can produce different portfolios to complete two slightly different units and bank two more certificates.

Suddenly my straightforward evening class is working towards their functional English exam, two City amp; Guilds units for the majority of the class and two different units for the repeat learners. It's confusing, the planning is a nightmare and I'm so busy chasing up incomplete portfolios that I can lose sight of what I'm meant to be doing, which is teaching English.

One of my students, who is 62, has been in the same job for more than 30 years and is now facing retirement. She has been with me for two courses, so she has two certificates in employability skills. I'm not sure who this is supposed to benefit but it clearly isn't her.

For what it's worth

There is a positive side, of course. If students fail the functional skills exam they have their City amp; Guilds certificates to fall back on. And qualifications mean a lot to people who left school empty-handed. But I don't go into much detail about this; I want my class to focus on passing the exam, not settling for the consolation prize.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says that the decision on whether or not to deliver these units lies with the provider. "Training providers should look at the individual circumstances of their students and carefully consider how they can best equip them with the skills they need to progress within learning or to get a job," they say.

"Individual colleges have the freedom to determine where they direct their funds in order to best serve their learners, employers and the local economy."

That may be the case, but our service caters for thousands of students, from teens to pensioners, who attend for various reasons. Each individual is assessed and placed on the course and in the class that best suits their skill level, interests and availability. It would be a logistical nightmare for those classes to be divided further so each learner was taught the City amp; Guilds unit that was most appropriate or appealing to them.

Teachers must apply a fairly broad-brush approach or they will not be able to cope. Employability skills tend to be the focus because the aim in adult education is largely to move learners into work. At my workplace, every person who lands a job is considered a success story. I am a willing and frequent reference-writer and have seen many people move into employment thanks to skills and qualifications achieved with us.

But not everyone is there for that reason. I teach English to full-time mums whose goal is to help their children with homework. I teach English to people who want to write better complaint letters and to those who want to work towards a GCSE for no other reason than self-improvement.

In these austere times, no one can blame any further education provider for chasing extra funding. And if that means creating more work for teachers, then so be it. In September 2013, I started off teaching one extra unit to my class. In February 2014, when I started a new course, I was teaching two. Who knows what the future holds?

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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