Keep it sweet and simple

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Some of the students will need clearance from the Criminal Investigations Bureau before going into work placements. Helping them fill in the forms can be more interesting than you think, and it's at this point I find I have been spelling everyone's name wrong since September. Paige, Shevorn, Tarnya...

"Mother's maiden name means her name before she was married. Oh, I see, just leave it blank then." "This space is in case you have lived in your house less than five years. You have to put down where you lived before, and from what date. I know there's only one space, so just put the last place."

"This bit here is to be filled in if you have changed your surname. So this isn't the name on your birth certificate? Ask your Mum when you got the deed. She won't remember? Well, perhaps we can work it out from when he went and the new bloke arrived."

The forms are complicated, even for people who lead straightforward lives which many of our students do not. We take along plenty of spare copies because there is always much slamming down of pens and ripping up of first and second attempts.

Fortunately, applicants don't have to list brothers and sisters, half brothers and sisters, quarter brothers and sisters, those living with mum, those living with dad, those living with the grandparents. When you realise how turbulent their lives can be, is it any wonder some of our students don't always hand in their assignments on time or turn up regularly at work placements? Getting them to take on ideas of commitment and reliability is all part of the course, but it will be a steep learning curve for some.

I've just got back from a forum on educational change. Why are such events called forums? Is it because we are being thrown to the lions? We had a very good presentation by a management consultant who helped us to think outside the box, although he didn't use that actual phrase, so perhaps it's passe by now. He did, however, mention "passion" several times, and clearly no management presentation is up to scratch without that. He also wore cufflinks, so I know he was the genuine article. It may be OK for managers in FE to button their cuffs, but in the world of business, such sartorial shortcoming will certainly limit your rise through the management tiers.

He explained the change curve, from which we learned that the latest big idea may sound exciting at first glance, but then, as we realise what the change involves, we will slide downward, before picking ourselves up again as the new approach beings to deliver benefits. The hard thing is that, in education, the curve hardly has a chance to sweep you upwards again, before another innovation arrives to shoot you down to the bottom again. Anyway, we had a lovely time in the breakout session devising the educational institutions we would create in the future, if money were no object. We came up with marvellous schemes which delivered any form of learning to anyone who wanted it and at the time of their choosing. Then we ate up all the chocolate biscuits and trooped disconsolately back to the real world, where budget cuts are in double figures.

It was good to get away from the doom and gloom of real college forecasting, and do some blue-sky thinking for a while. But back at base, I had begun to worry that I hadn't got the balance right on an early-learning course I'm running for young mums.

We have been spending a lot of time in auditory and visual learning modes and perhaps I should have been providing more kinaesthetic activities. So I asked the mums how they felt about that. They assured me they were very comfortable with opportunities to chat, and the only adjustment they wanted was Hobnobs. So I made the necessary changes in the light of feedback and took along a packet each week after that.

Once again, family life revealed itself in all its complexities. I managed to reduce several students to tears, just by asking them to think about the significant adults in their own childhoods, and what they had learned from them. This time it was tissues, as well as biscuits that got passed round.

The following week, all the students turned up, eager as ever. Rather nervously, I asked for feedback from the previous week, but they told me they thought it had really done them good. There's nothing like a good cry, sometimes.

When we got to the unit on managing behaviour, their unanimous strategy was to bribe their children with chocolate. I wasn't sure that this was a good idea, but I could hardly say so as I handed round the Hobnobs.

The end-of-course evaluation was positive and one of the students took me aside and told me that my approach had really made a difference. But was it me or McVitie's?

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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