Ngaio Crequer reports on how colleges are failing to provide adequate courses
A damning indictment of the quality and standards of basic education courses in colleges has been made by the Further Education Funding Council.
Around a quarter of a million students take courses such as literacy, numeracy and English as a foreign language, making them the council's sixth largest programme area.
But, says the report, many teachers are inexperienced, there is a lack of support for part-time teachers, insufficient sharing of good practice between teachers, and inadequate curriculum guidance for staff.
"Basic education is one of the most demanding and difficult areas in further education, yet it rarely receives adequate support and attention from college managers. The standard is a cause for concern when compared with the standards in other programme areas," says the report from the council's inspectorate.
Grades awarded to basic education are lower than for other subjects. Between 1994 and 1997 59 per cent of programmes were graded 1 or 2, compared with an average of 69 per cent of others. Grades for students with learning difficulties were lower than for those on other courses.
"In many colleges, the content of lessons for students with learning difficulties and the teaching methods used are inappropriate. Many teachers do not understand how to help students to learn. Consequently lessons often consist of a series of pointless activities which are of little relevance or interest to the students."
Some students were undertaking work which initial assessments showed did not meet their needs. For example, in the third week of an English for Speakers of Other Languages course a part-time teacher was showing students how to complete job applications, unaware that most of them had only recently arrived in the country. The teacher had not seen the assessments which were kept on another site.
"One class of students with learning difficulties moved from a two-hour session on communications skills to a 90-minute session on word-processing skills, although few could read the material given to them in either session."
The report is also critical of teachers who devise programmes the students will enjoy, rather than provide useful skills.
Another concern is the way that some lessons are unrelated to the title of the course. A "survival cookery" course included making scones, sausage rolls, sponge cakes and Christmas cakes. Another included activities such as making calendars, padded coat hangers, Easter bonnets and lavender bags, under the title of "homemaking skills".
The teaching of numeracy was often weak, says the report. In one lesson numbers were written on the board and students copied them and checked if they had them on their lotto card. "Few students could read the numbers and most copied without understanding what they were doing. The teacher took no account of students' abilities and little was learned."
The inspectors found that although most teachers were committed to providing high-quality education and worked hard, some did not have the specialist experience needed for one of the most complex and challenging aspects of FE for both teachers and students.