Motivation for improvement can come from within

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
When lecturers met to talk about working practices they got some surprises. Justina Hart reports

"THEY don't often get the chance to talk about what they're really here for," Geoff Pine, principal of the recently merged Woolwich amp; Greenwich Community College, said of his staff. Lecturers take heart: this may be all about to change.

Following planning meetings, the college came up with an innovative staff day inspired by the need to tackle concerns over quality and achievement. The college's head of quality assurance Frank Halsey said: "FENTO (the national training organisation) standards were the trigger, but the main aim was for staff to think about what they do best, so we can increase recruitment and retention."

In the morning, staff were asked to discuss best teaching and learning practice in mixed groups from across the college. Then lecturers had to plan an integrated assignment for their curriculum area, based on best practice.

"I'd be surprised if other colleges were looking at standards in such a focused and practical way," said Mr Pine.

The principal, and the outside speakers who attended - Dave Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, and Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency - placed the need to raise teaching and learning standards firmly in the context of the Learning to Succeed White Paper. FENTO's publication, Standards for Teaching and Supporting Learning, and the Standards Fund's drive to improve pedagogic skills, as well as to increase industrial and professional updating, and to support part-time staff, were also key themes.

Dave Gibson spoke of the Government's plans to simplify the inspection process, but also stressed the need for vigilant self-assessment: "It's much better than someone coming in, taking a photograph and going away. The AOC wants to encourage colleges to use best practice from self- assessment and inspections.

"Customers will come saying these are my needs: how can you help me achieve them?"

Groups were encouraged to be self-reliant and draw on their own teaching experience. Having discussed what they thought constituted best practice during the different stages of teaching, learning and student support, they realised that their criteria closely matched the standards outlined in the FENTO document. Basic standards and values highlighted by teachers included "adequate resourcing", "variety of teaching techniques and learning methods" and use of "information technology as a learning and communication tool".

Teachers may not have to refer to the document unless they are aiming for professional accreditation, but it marks a significant step forward to "have something saying this is what an FE teacher in a college does", said Chris Hughes. It gives teachers "something to live up to".

In the afternoon, staff were asked to prepare an assignment or subject module for a group of 21 hypothetical students with varying needs. This group included one student with a major visual impairment, a single parent with two children, and four English-as-a-second language students with poor literacy skills.

Each curriculum group had to record discussions and planning to devise teaching and learning strategies which addressed the make-up of the group. Subject heads would follow up the exercise before Christmas to see how effectively the case study plans had been implemented.

"Another reason for having this day is for the very dedicated staff to help and support new staff and those who find it hard to change," said Rachel Wight, the educational consultant who devised the work. "It will help build confidence, so that individuals realise they've got to move forward, but not start from scratch. While best practice in terms of teaching and learning can be gleaned from internal skills and knowledge, the college believes that in some other areas, it needs to draw on expertise from outside, if standards are to improve."

Managers are planning to bring in Beacon or other award-winning colleges to improve curriculum ideas, and to organise staff visits to such colleges. "It's very hard for colleges to do innovative curriculum development internally, especially with the drop in funding, " said Wight.

"There's a return to core business going on," continued Chris Hughes. "I'm seeing a switch from growing business into the community, to pedagogy. "Colleges are asking what do we do? How? And why?

Many staff at Woolwich amp; Greenwich Community College said that they felt relieved to be able to focus on teaching and learning for a change. One art lecturer said: "It's been a very useful training shop. Rather than re inventing the wheel, we learned that we have lots of best practice in house."

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